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The UK government has launched a consultation on the introduction of driverless vehicles on the country’s roads.

A document from the Department of Transport published this week, forecast that both freight and passenger driverless vehicles featuring a limited form of automation “which can be parked within line of sight by remote control, or pilot themselves with human oversight on high speed roads such as motorways, will be available for sale in the next two to four years”. According to intelligent mobility firm Transport Catapult Systems, the global market for such vehicles could be worth as much as £900bn by 2025.

The document promised that regulatory reform governing operation of vehicles on the roads would come in “waves”, in step-by-step approaches rather than enacting fundamental change now, although it admitted that work to upgrade the insurance framework would need to begin immediately, “giving insurers and manufacturers time to consider what insurance products can come to market in time for when this technology arrives”.

One of the early forms of driverless automation applicable to the freight industry is platooning, whereby convoys of trucks are connected by vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication “allowing them to effectively operate as a single unit – accelerating and braking simultaneously”, as well as conferring further operational advantages, the department said.

“While operating in this mode, because there is no delay between vehicles when braking, the headway between each vehicle can be reduced to a few metres, allowing the vehicles to benefit from reduced aerodynamic drag and therefore increased fuel efficiency. Platooning could also free more road space and improve traffic flow,” it said.

The publication was welcomed by the Freight Transport Association (FTA), with Christopher Snelling, head of national and regional policy, arguing that there were likely to be a range of benefits from the widespread adoption of driverless trucks.

“Driver aides and moves towards fuller automation are the most promising routes we have for a step-change in road safety.  The emissions and road use efficiency benefits are also potentially substantial, so updating regulations to enable all these technologies to be developed as quickly as possible is a good move,” he said.

“There are challenges in making effective use of platooning in the UK.  And all these concepts and technologies need to be thoroughly tested and their real world impacts measured before they are taken up on a wide-scale basis.

“We also need to see similar innovation in other modes like rail and water freight to maximise their use too.  But the reality is that over 80% of the goods the UK needs to function each day are moved by road, and we need to work to maximise the efficiency of its performance if we are to reduce emissions and improve transport safety as much as possible, and as quickly as possible.”

The full document can be downloaded here and consultation is to run to 9 September this year.


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