Truck 'platooning' is closer than you think

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This article was originally published on — September 7, 2016 4:51PM EDT

One of the most promising applications of AV technology in trucking is the use of adaptive cruise control and vehicle-to-vehicle communication systems to allow truck “platooning.” Platooning lets two or more trucks electronically couple so that acceleration and braking by the lead truck can be instantaneously relayed to, and replicated by, following trucks. The result is closer following distances between trucks, which allows for significant increases in fuel efficiency and safety.

Regulatory and market pressures make improvements in efficiency and safety increasingly desirable. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the death toll in truck-involved crashes rose 16 percent from 2009 to 2014, with 3,660 truck accident fatalities in 2014. The US government has noticed that increase.

Recent years have seen changes to the driver hours-of-service regulations; the introduction of an electronic logging mandate, scheduled to take effect in December 2017; and a proposed US mandate for use of technology limiting truck speeds.

As futuristic as platooning may sound, it uses existing technology, and the regulatory hurdles trucking would have to leap to use the technology are not high.

In April a dozen trucks, from Volvo, DAF, Daimler, Scania, Iveco, and MAN Truck & Bus (a subsidiary of Volkswagen), completed the European Truck Platooning Challenge. The trucks departed from three factory locations in Southern Germany and Sweden, driving 2,000 kilometers in normal traffic conditions to the Port of Rotterdam, Holland.

Daimler reported fuel savings under these real world conditions at 7 percent overall for a three-truck platoon (2 percent for the lead truck, 11 percent for the middle truck, and 9 percent for the last). Similar truck platoon studies tout fuel savings of up to 15 percent. With fuel accounting for as much as 30 to 40 percent of fleet operating costs, a 10 percent reduction in fuel costs represents significant savings that could be passed along to shippers, suppliers and ultimately consumers, and improve carrier profitability.

Uber rolled out robocabs in Pittsburgh in August, and Ford recently announced that it will release a steering wheel-free autonomous car for ridesharing in 2021. Meanwhile, the ocean shipping industry is looking at using remotely controlled unmanned cargo ships and autonomous ships by the 2030s.

Unlike autonomous cars, the trucking industry need not wait for the regulatory framework to catch-up to AV technology in order to institute the initial phases of truck platooning. The National Highway Safety Administration defines five levels of automation, ranging from zero (no automated features) to Level 4, fully automated.

Given the early stage of development of autonomous driving technology, NHTSA has recommended states not allow operation of “self-driving” vehicles, i.e. Level 3 or higher, except for testing purposes.

Current truck platooning technology (where a following truck’s acceleration and braking are automated while the driver still steers) is only considered Level 1 automation, and next generation truck platooning technology (where steering and acceleration and braking are automated while highway driving) is Level 2.That means truck platooning technology should clear regulatory hurdles for the foreseeable future, leaving the biggest present regulatory concern the minimum following distances between trucks, which vary state to state.

Live truck platoon tests have occurred in Texas and Nevada, and Florida recently enacted legislation calling for a truck platooning study and pilot test program.

The Federal Highway Administration, under its Exploratory Advanced Research program is testing and evaluating Driver Assistive Truck Platooning.

Startup companies like Otto, founded by four former Google engineers and recently acquired by Uber, are developing systems to retrofit trucks with sensors and communications systems necessary for Level 1 and 2 truck platooning, meaning the technology will be available to owner-operators and smaller trucking companies, which make up the majority of the nation’s trucking industry.

In the future, the freight and transportation industry hopes to benefit from advancements in AV technology ahead of passenger transportation by utilizing fully driverless trucks to streamline the loading and unloading process to reduce delays.

The trucking industry should again be ahead of the regulatory curve because, long before regulations permit such vehicles on public roadways, it can deploy fully driverless (i.e. NHTSA Level 4) trucks in shipyards, railyards and industrial parks where much of the loading and unloading occurs.

Faced with market and regulatory pressures, it is inevitable that trucking companies will increasingly rely on AV technology’s promise of labor productivity gains, better asset utilization, and reduced frequency and severity of accidents to decrease shipping costs to suppliers and ultimately provide cheaper goods for consumers.