Small convoys of partially driverless lorries will be tried out on major British roads by the end of next year, the government has announced.
A contract has been awarded to the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) to carry out the tests of vehicle “platoons”.
Up to three lorries will travel in formation, with acceleration and braking controlled by the lead vehicle.
But the head of the AA said platoons raised safety concerns.
The TRL will begin trials of the technology on test tracks, but these trials are expected to move to major roads by the end of 2018.
The lead vehicle in the platoons will be controlled by a human driver and humans will also control the steering in lorries to the rear – though acceleration and braking will be mirrored.
Lorries driving close together could see the front vehicle pushing air out of the way, making the other vehicles more efficient and lowering their emissions.
This could lead to fuel savings for companies that will hopefully be passed on to consumers, Transport Minister Paul Maynard said.
The government has been promising such a project since at least 2014.
Last year, for example, it announced its intention to carry out platooning trials but was later frustrated after some European lorrymakers declined to participate.
A Department of Transport spokesman told the BBC that the experiments are now expected to go ahead as the contract had been awarded.
The TRL has announced its partners for the project:
- DAF Trucks, a Dutch lorry manufacturer
- Ricardo, a British smart tech transport firm
- DHL, a German logistics company
Platooning has been tested in a number of countries around the world, including the US, Germany and Japan.
However, British roads present a unique challenge, said Edmund King, president of the AA.
“We all want to promote fuel efficiency and reduce congestion but we are not yet convinced that lorry platooning on UK motorways is the way to go about it,” he said, pointing out, for example, that small convoys of lorries can block road signs from the view of other road users.
“We have some of the busiest motorways in Europe with many more exits and entries.
“Platooning may work on the miles of deserted freeways in Arizona or Nevada but this is not America,” he added.
His comments were echoed by the RAC Foundation.
Its director, Steve Gooding, said: “Streams of close-running HGVs could provide financial savings on long-distance journeys, but on our heavily congested motorways – with stop-start traffic and vehicles jostling for position – the benefits are less certain.”
Campaign group the Road Haulage Association said “safety has to come first”.
Transport Minister Paul Maynard said platooning could lead to cheaper fuel bills, lower emissions and less congestion.
“But first we must make sure the technology is safe and works well on our roads, and that’s why we are investing in these trials,” he said.