Truck platooning is just around the corner. The technology is already there and trials are underway. But what is platooning, how does it work and what are the advantages and concerns? Here’s what you need to know about platooning before it becomes a reality and not just a futuristic fantasy.
- What is platooning?
When several trucks equipped with advanced driving support systems drive close together in a convoy or ‘road train’, called a platoon.
- How does it work?
The trucks in the platoon are driven by smart technology and mutually communicate to maintain a set, close distance between each other on motorways. The truck at the head of the platoon acts as the leader, while the vehicles behind react and adapt to changes in its movement, requiring little or no action from drivers.
- How close will the trucks travel?
Truck platooning is based on a much shorter distance between vehicles – typically 8-10 metres (compared to closer the 50 metres or more for a vehicle travelling at 50mph allowed by the Highway Code) – to take advantage of slipstreaming.
- Can anyone join a platoon?
No, there will have to be co-operation and planning between companies and fleet owners. Supporters of platooning expect there to be a smooth process that will involve booking, joining and leaving the “road train”.
- What are the benefits?
- Lower fuel consumption as the trucks drive closely together, which is more aerodynamic, at a constant speed
- Less CO2 emissions
- Improved traffic flow to reduce tailbacks
- Less space taken up on the road
- More in-vehicle technology should improve safety
- Increased efficiency because drivers can rest, meaning the platoon can stay on the road for longer distances
- Is it safe?
It’s claimed that truck platooning will improve safety. Braking is automatic and immediate, while the trucks following the lead vehicle only need one-fifth of the time a human would need to react . However, critics draw attention to issues such as communication between the vehicles. If there’s an interruption or failure it could have fatal consequences. Also, drivers in the following trucks may not be as focused as they may be during conventional driving because they are relying on technology. Would they be able to react quickly enough in an emergency?
- How soon could we see truck platoons on our roads?
Just like self-driving cars, truck platooning will have to clear many hurdles before it is given the green light. However, according to the ACEA (European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association), “by 2023, it should be possible to drive across Europe on motorways (thus crossing national borders) with multi-brand platoons”.
- How will platooning affect other road users?
There are fears that drivers of smaller vehicles would not be able to contend with this moving obstruction when joining or turning off a motorway at a junction. But backers of platooning say the trucks will be able to sense if a smaller vehicle attempts to break up a platoon and they will automatically leave a gap. For safety reasons, it’s thought that platoons may have to hog the middle lane for much of the time which could lead to congestion and frustration.
- What’s next?
There are various truck platooning trials taking place. For instance, it will be used for distribution work in Germany from spring 2018, in a trial involving truck-maker MAN and operator DB Schenker. Even if the trials are successful, everything from new road signs to the training of truck drivers, new insurance liability and the education of motorists will have to take place before it can be implemented. Additionally, regulations will have to be standardised and systems designed that will enable communication between different trucks from different manufacturers.
- Where are we likely to see truck platooning?
Truck platooning technology is best suited to the relative predictability of long hauls on motorways without many junctions.
- Will it happen in the UK?
Our road network is amongst the world’s most congested with the greatest number of junctions. As the RAC’s chief engineer, David Bizley, said “one of the main questions is really whether lorry platoons are appropriate for our motorway network”. 
- Will it put drivers out of work?
There is speculation that platooning could mark end of the long-distance lorry driver as we know it. Ultimately, with advances in autonomous technology, some drivers may not be required, but initially platooning very much needs a driver to be in control and to be able to join and exit the system to continue the journey and deliver the load.
- Any other concerns about platooning?
There are worries that “smart trucks” and their loads could be vulnerable to hacking or hijack, while the extra technology may also make the vehicles expensive, negating the benefits in fuel savings, for instance.