It's hard not to be sceptical about the marginal pollution benefits of lorry platooning when rail freight is so much cleaner and greener. In fact, one might say that 70-truck lorry platoons already exist, known as freight trains!
However, the MD of TRL, which will carry out the £8m independent evaluation and trial for the Government, was already hugely supportive of the technology in a Channel Four News programme, to which I also contributed.
Lorry platooning with driverless rear trucks could unquestionably reduce road haulage costs, but presents serious road safety risks on our congested road network as highlighted by motoring groups. While the proponents state that the rear lorries will have drivers now, the longer term aim, given that the technology is expensive, must be to run without rear drivers as their wages make up around a third of the traditional HGV running costs. It could also make it harder for independent hauliers, who still make up a large element of the sector, to compete with the big logistics providers. That is why there has been mixed reaction for the measure from hauliers and their representative bodies. Platooning could help the industry overcome its shortage of drivers, though.
While platooning could be viable in sparsely populated countries, there are serious safety and practical obstacles, such as cyber-crime, in allowing a procession of lorries on our congested motorway network which has frequent exits close together. Other outstanding issues include where these conveys will assemble and how they will work with so-called smart motorways, without hard shoulders for emergencies.
Platooning, which is expected to reduce pollution by around 10 per cent, could seriously undermine rail freight which reduces congestion, is far safer and produces 76% less carbon dioxide emissions and up to fifteen times less NOx and 90% less particulates than trucks.
Platooning could also increase road damage costs; the standard truck is 138,000 times more damaging to road infrastructure than a Ford Focus.
Recent polling showed that almost two thirds of the public want to see more freight on the railways with only 2 per cent wanting to see more freight on the roads, while other polls have shown deep public suspicion of autonomous vehicles.
Customer demand for more consumer and construction rail freight services is currently constrained by the lack of space on the rail network. So, instead, the Government should upgrade key rail freight routes and set affordable freight access charges in the forthcoming review in recognition of rail freight's socio-economic benefits to avoid gridlock and control air pollution.