Self-driving trucks: a game-changer in transport? (part 1)
Posted by Famke De Ro on 25/03/2016
On March 31st, Volvo Trucks Belgium kicks off the first Belgian trial involving self-driving trucks. This initiative will comprise three convoys of two or three trucks each, a concept that has become known as platoons or road trains. As previous test projects in other countries revealed great potential, expectations for the Belgian trial are high. However, given the dense Flemish road network and the high number of motorway junctions, it remains uncertain whether the trial in Belgium will achieve similar benefits.
In the concept of platooning, each truck follows the vehicle in front using adaptive cruise control and vehicle-to-vehicle communication, based on GPS, radar and Wi-Fi. The drivers themselves drive their vehicles until the truck picks up the platooning signal and automatically joins the convoy. From that moment onwards, the manoeuvres, braking actions and speed of the vehicles are interdependent. If the lead truck brakes, the vehicles behind it immediately brake to the same extent. However, professional drivers are still necessary because the trucks cannot (yet) steer themselves.
Efficient and sustainable
Autonomously driving trucks offer various advantages. The European trial project called Safe Road Trains for the Environment (SARTRE) estimated potential fuel savings up to 20% thanks to the constant speed of the trucks. Truck manufacturer Scania is more cautious and claims fuel savings of 5% to 10%, depending on the distance maintained between the trucks. Furthermore, they pointed out a significant reduction of CO2 emissions of 10%.
Another important benefit of self- driving trucks concerns road safety. The likelihood of accidents involving trucks caused by human error will decrease considerably. Since all vehicles in the convoy react in real time to the leading truck, self-driving trucks will especially increase safety on highly congested roads and during traffic jams. Moreover, the trucks in a convoy drive closely together. This creates more space on the road, improving the general flow of traffic.
In the long term, platooning offers a new approach to the role of truck drivers. Drivers will be less busy with the physical act of driving the vehicle, thus having more time to spend on other tasks. They, for example, would be able to follow training courses or to do some administration – provided that the cabins are adequately equipped, of course. Furthermore, these additional tasks could help to enhance the work of a truck driver.
Although platooning seems very promising in terms of efficiency and environemtal friendliness, the trial will first need to meet the above expectations before self-driving road trains can really make their debut on our roads.