Driverless lorries are to be tested in ‘platoons’ on British motorways as part of a government drive to improve passenger journeys and encourage the technology’s proliferation in the UK.
According to reports, Chancellor George Osborne is expected to confirm funding for the initiative in his Budget next week.
A stretch of the M6 near Carlisle is being considered as a potential test route for the driverless platoons.
Packing a number of trucks together in a tight convoy has a number of advantages over traditional freight transport. Their fuel consumption is improved considerably by the reduction in drag, as only the vehicle at the front of the convoy has to withstand the amount of air resistance typically experienced by the vehicles.
In addition, while early trials of driverless platoons will use a driver to control the front vehicle, with those behind following autonomously, this still greatly reduces the number of man hours needed to move loads long distances. This also brings other efficiencies such as the power savings achieved by only needing to air-condition the truck being used by the sole driver.
The tests on the M6 will see the front driver controlling the steering, acceleration and braking of the road train, although the vehicles further back will still have a driver in each cab as a safety precaution to regain control in the event of an emergency.
Australian trucking companies are already embracing the technology with mining giants such as Rio Tinto using remote-controlled lorries to shift iron ore around massive mining pits.
There are hopes that the technology could one day improve road safety.
However, Paul Watters, head of roads and transport policy for the AA has warned that there are a number of obstacles in the way before the technology can become mainstream.
"Convoys of driverless lorries and motorists will certainly be very nervous about the prospect and will need considerable reassurance that it will be safe,” he said.
"Motorways are pretty congested in the UK. They are about the most congested in Europe and there will be problems in how they access and exit the roads."
He explained that a procession of driverless lorries would block slip roads, meaning they would have to use the offside lane. "There are lots of logistical problems," he added.
A Department for Transport spokeswoman said: "New technology has the potential to bring major improvements to journeys and the UK is in a unique position to lead the way for the testing of connected and driverless vehicles.
"We are planning trials of HGV platoons - which enable vehicles to move in a group so they use less fuel - and will be in a position to say more in due course."