Platooning technology is no longer just a concept. Once an innovative idea for improving the fuel efficiency and autonomy of over-the-road freight, platooning is now in the fast lane to large-scale real-world application, a result of emerging technological advancements, on-road trials, and changing state regulations.
The Promise of Platooning
Most platooning technologies promise increased fuel efficiency for trucks, and improved safety. For companies like Peloton, these goals are accomplished through several different interrelated mechanisms.
The first, and arguably most important, is a vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication system that connects the acceleration and braking between two trucks in a platoon. The lead truck sets the overall speed of the platoon, ensuring the trucks operate harmoniously, with quick braking and acceleration systems that promise a reaction time much faster than that of a human driver.
Along with the communication system, additional technology is installed on each truck. Most platoon-capable vehicles are fitted with a front and rear-facing camera, so that drivers in the front or back of a platoon have a digital window into the areas they cannot see behind or ahead of them. Many systems also use advanced radar technology to track the speed of the lead truck, as well as sense any highway cut-ins and prevent collisions. Trucks can typically platoon with 30-50 feet between them, so this technology is crucial to ensure the safety of everyone sharing the road.
This technology system promises significant efficiency gains. Recent demonstrations have shown that lead trucks can see up to 4.5% fuel savings, while following trucks can see up to as much as 10%. Research supports this as well; in a series of recent tests performed by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), researchers were able to demonstrate a lead truck fuel savings of up to 5.3%, and a following truck savings of up to 9.7% with ideal ambient temperature, truck weight, and following distance conditions.
Time must also be spent educating truck drivers. For Peloton, drivers are only safe to platoon once they’ve undergone an approved training program. Their trucks must be fitted with the above technologies, including a radar-based collision avoidance system, tractor air disk brakes, and trailer ABS brakes. This training and installation of technology will be essential as carriers begin to adopt this technology for within-fleet use.
Demonstrating the Future
Companies like Peloton, Volvo Group, and Daimler that are pioneering this technology are also working to demonstrate the opportunity it represents to a wider audience.
In June of 2018, Volvo Group, in partnership with FedEx, held an on-highway demonstration of their platooning technology system, testing a three-truck platoon with Volvo’s own tractors and technology. The event was hosted on the North Carolina Turnpike Authority, one of ten road sections throughout the U.S. that have been designated by the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) as proving grounds for the testing of autonomous vehicle technology.
During the demonstration, safety was the main showcase – the three trucks in the platoon travelled with a time gap of 1.5 seconds between each other. To simulate real-life road conditions, both staged and unplanned cut-ins by other vehicles took place, showing how the technology can adapt to the uncertainty of roadways.
This event was one of the most recent in several platooning demonstrations that have taken place throughout the world. In 2017, Volvo demonstrated its technology at the Port of Los Angeles, Peloton did so on Interstate 96 in Michigan, and Daimler tested its technology for Japanese investors in Tokyo.
As platooning technology becomes both more viable and accessible, it’s reasonable to expect that more demonstrations, specifically of its safety features, will take place in the future. Shippers also have an opportunity to move this technology forward by getting involved in conversations about the demonstration and deployment of this new technological transportation infrastructure.
Overcoming Legislative Barriers
While government agencies such as the U.S. Department of Transportation are embracing new autonomous vehicle technologies like platooning systems, there is still much work to be done to create widespread roadway acceptance from many state legislatures.
According to a 2018 survey by the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CPI), 16 state jurisdictions have approved or altered laws to allow platooning technology, including testing and demonstrations. Of these, 10 now allow platooning trucks to be as close as within 40 feet from each other.
This year alone, nine states have come on board, including Alabama, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Wisconsin. To allow platooning states typically must amend laws concerning minimum distance between trucks—laws initially enacted to protect motorists and truck drivers from traveling too closely in difficult road conditions. Because most platooning technologies operate between 30-50 feet, to gain greater support for such close distances lawmakers must be educated on the reliability of the safety mechanisms in place for platooning vehicles.
While getting similar laws passed in the remaining 34 states that do not currently allow platooning, emphasis must be placed on the safety of these systems. In the wake of several autonomous vehicle fatalities this past year, highlighting the role of platooning in driver assistance, not driver replacement, is imperative. Drivers are continuously connected and engaged via V2V communication.
One opportunity that presents itself as more states approve platooning will be the creation of larger corridors for technology utilization. Though some states that now allow platooning neighbor each other, testing along longer stretches of road may be further assisted with larger clusters of neighboring states available as trial ground. This could allow more widespread practical use of the technology, once the decision is made to move beyond testing on official USDOT proving grounds.
From Driver Assistance to Full Automation
As platooning gains more widespread public and legislative acceptance, its trajectory is also representative of a much larger trend in innovation: full automation. As capacity tightens in the freight market and finding drivers becomes more difficult, companies like Embark, Starsky Robotics, and TuSimple are exploring and developing technologies that will answer these challenges with new and innovative technologies.
While commercial release of fully automated and driverless trucks isn’t expected for quite some time, the technologies being developed demonstrate the next wave of transportation. This year, Embark completed a cross-county trial run of its automated truck from Los Angeles, CA to Jacksonville, FL. Though a driver was present in the truck the entire time to monitor the system, the technology did most of the work.
Stakeholders behind these new automation technologies expect similar challenges to those currently being faced by proponents of platooning, and engaging with state legislatures will continue to be a key element in this process.
“The first commercial deployments of autonomous trucks will likely happen through close partnerships with states, which provide a good, smaller scale test bed for the technology,” says Embark CEO Alex Rodrigues. “That would eventually create a path to a federal approach as the technology proves itself.”
As full automation remains in sight, platooning will be a decisive test for how the public and lawmakers accept new trucking technology with autonomous sentiment. By engaging with decisionmakers and continuing to exhibit new technologies to the public, companies like Peloton, Volvo Group, Daimler and others are both pioneering Level 1 automation, and creating the environment of which higher levels will eventually be a key part. Whether it’s a Level 1 or Level 4 strategy, truck automation will have big impacts for both the freight market and for shippers’ supply chains.
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