Will driverless cars ever come to the UK’s roads?

Automation is creeping into a whole range of industries and processes. And the prospect of vehicles navigating roads without a human behind the wheel is among the most anticipated innovations of our time.

Uber and Tesla have hit the headlines with inventions, but how realistic is it that driverless lorries will be on UK motorways in the future?

A UK government announcement in 2017 firmly put the wheels in motion. It was revealed that Transport Research Laboratory had been awarded a contract to pilot a driverless ‘platoon’ of lorries.

Driving in a formation of three, with as little as four metres between them, the front lorry is to be human-driven and would control the accelerating and breaking of the back two vehicles.

It is an exciting prospect and one that could bring greater efficiency and economic savings, but it is not without risk.


Legal issues

Given it is an area largely without precedent and while the technology may be advancing at an eye-watering rate, legal frameworks are not.

At current, there is no specific law covering a self-driving lorry, and this could cause headaches for fleet businesses adopting the technology in the future.

As it stands, it is the lorry driver who is liable for an accident but no specific laws are yet in place to transfer this to the company if it happened with a driverless vehicle.

There is also the ‘trolley problem’ plaguing debates around driverless cars.

It’s the idea of how a self-driving vehicle determines a least bad option. The algorithm could be faced with either veering into motorists on one side of a road or breaking and hitting a elderly pedestrian or changing direction and thus colliding with a group of individuals.

The UK government said it won’t mandate developers to write solutions to the ‘trolley problem’ into designs, but admitted it could be revisited as the industry advances.


Safety first

Alongside the legal and ethical maze, there are obvious safety concerns.

The ‘platooning’ trial of driverless lorries was greeted with a degree of scepticism. Some observers noted that the make-up of UK motorways with their large number of exits and entries could heighten the chances of accidents.

What’s more, as the model relies on three lorries remaining in an extremely close formation, there could be a risk other road users are blocked from seeing roads signs and turns.

Aesthetically, driverless vehicles – which will lack the human eye for cleanliness – will also have to be kept in pristine condition and so utilising an efficient cleaning service like Dropless will be essential.


Efficiency potential

Notwithstanding the clear difficulties, the benefits to fleet managers could be great.

With the lorries in unison it is believed this will reduce air resistance and consequently help improve fuel efficiency. TRL said improvements to fuel economy could be between 4% and 10%.

In addition, the constant speed maintained by driverless lorries could reduce congestion and bring another benefit to fleet managers.

Driverless cars can also help keep a fleet mobile – including fleet downtime – which we know is a concern never too far away from fleet managers’ minds.

Due to our frequent visits to clean the cars, we offer inspection services that allow us to report damages and fault, automatically schedule repairs via API to in-house, or third party vendors. Dropless connect each fleet vehicle to a network of support, limiting down time for any faults or issues and seamlessly reports this data into any fleet management dashboard.


Looking forward

In truth, driverless lorries may have a long way to go, but technology is already having major industry impact.

The now ubiquitous use of GPS has transformed driver routes, while the use of electronic logging devices has helped monitor vehicle and driver performance.

With new innovations such as self-repair software, big data analysing fuel efficiency and alternative options and machine-learning driving change in video and telematic systems, even more technology innovation is on the horizon.

And coupled with Dropless’s non-hazardous and time-saving waterless cleaning service, the fleet industry – even without driverless vehicles just yet – is heading for a bright future.