Fleets of self-driving lorries are headed for UK roads

Venture out onto the UK motorway network in the next couple of years and you might well have to overtake a platoon of three self-driving lorries on your journey: the government just awarded a contract to the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) to carry out a series of trials of the technology, which will involve real-world testing by the end of 2018.

The front lorry in each convoy will be controlled by a flesh and blood human being, and the ones following behind will have people at the wheel too. The difference is that the two trucks behind the leader will be mirroring the acceleration and braking patterns of the front vehicle thanks to the magic of autonomous technology and a local Wi-Fi network.

Having software controlling speed will mean the lorries can travel closer together, reducing wind resistance and theoretically making the whole operation more efficient in terms of fuel - that's good news for haulage companies and for the planet as well.

This is not America

The scheme has been in the pipeline for months and similar 'platooning' tests have been run in the US, Germany and Japan already. DAF Trucks, smart tech company Ricardo, and DHL are going to be the partners in the project, though as yet there's no exact date or location set for the trials.

Despite the government's enthusiasm, motoring groups have raised questions about whether these streamlined convoys can work on Britain's crowded motorways, where they could easily block signs or exits. "Platooning may work on the miles of deserted freeways in Arizona or Nevada but this is not America," said the AA's Edmund King.

However, the whole point of the tests is to work out whether the system does or doesn't work here in the UK, and the fleets of lorries will be put through their paces on private tracks before being moved to a major public road. "First, we must make sure the technology is safe," said Transport Minister Paul Maynard.