One of the key technologies that improved vehicle connectivity will enable in the trucking industry is platooning. Benefits of the technology, which allows heavy-duty trucks to safely follow each other at close distances, are well documented – closing the distance between trucks reduces the aerodynamic drag on both a lead vehicle and those in its wake, meaning sizeable fuel-efficiency boosts. In addition, the self-driving technology that goes hand-in-hand with platooning will improve safety on the road, for both drivers and other road users. The average human driver takes around a second to react and apply brakes on the road; platooning systems can do this within a hundredth of a second.
Whilst autonomous vehicle technology such as sensors will be an essential part of any platooning system, it is important to attach equal weight to the role of connectivity, says Josh Switkes, Chief Executive of Peloton Technology. Switkes’ company develops and offers a platooning system which makes use of sensing, communications and data, and the company is on target to begin a commercial roll-out of its systems later this year in North America.
Platooning technology is on the verge of reaching maturity, and has already begun enjoying public visibility. In 2016, the Dutch government initiated The European Truck Platooning challenge, and orchestrated a high-profile demo in April. A number of platoons travelled across the continent to the Dutch port of Maasvlakte, with some clocking up distances of over 2,000 km (1,240 miles) on public roads.
But Peloton, which has been involved in a number of North American trials, is convinced the technology will rise to prominence in its home market. “In several ways, North America is the best initial region for platooning,” suggests Switkes. Of course, he adds, it will expand from there, but the benefits seem clear: “For example, distances on the highway in America are much longer compared with Western Europe. Furthermore, you rarely drive for long in Western Europe without passing through or near a city, whereas in the US you can drive hundreds of miles without getting close to one.”
Longer highway stretches typically mean higher average speeds, in which aerodynamic drag becomes more of an issue that needs addressing. Other factors making the North American market particularly suitable for the roll-out of platooning technology include the large size of fleets, where companies may run up to 30,000 vehicles – much higher than in Europe.
The connected fleet
One of Peloton’s key interests in the sector is connectivity. As Switkes explains, there are two major forms of connectivity that will enable the company’s system. One of these is vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) connectivity which runs between the individual trucks in a platoon, made possible via dedicated short-range communications (DSRC), specifically designed for the automotive sector. Whilst the ability of Peloton’s radar sensor is an important component that can still outperform a human, the processing involved means that sensing systems alone may not be able to respond in time to avoid a collision when required.
“Truck-to-truck communication is key because it can provide data to trucks behind the leader much sooner and more reliably than a sensor can alone,” says Switkes. “For example, a rear truck could receive information on when the brakes on the front truck are being applied. A fraction of a second later, that front truck will physically slow down, and it’s not until another fraction of a second later that a sensor can reliably detect that slow-down.”
Reliability and accuracy are important considerations. V2V communication can give a rear truck accurate data on the strength and nature of the braking. By contrast, a sensor can only detect slow-down, and struggles to identify the difference between the brakes being applied and a driver taking their foot off the gas. Figuring this out means another delay, and at close distances there might be no time for such a delay.
In addition to V2V connectivity, a second essential component in platooning is Cloud connectivity via cellular and Wi-Fi communications. Peloton makes use of a network-operations centre (NOC) which tracks each truck’s exact location, and makes recommendations for platooning where appropriate. “The Cloud authorises and supervises the process,” says Switkes. “So we only authorise a platoon when it meets certain conditions. If the weather is severe, we can exclude trucks from entering platooning mode.” In addition, platooning can only be activated along certain roads and under certain traffic conditions. Once activated, the NOC continuously analyses the situation and adjusts the distance between the trucks to achieve an optimal balance between safety and efficiency.
There are also opportunities in which V2V-connectivity can work with the Cloud. Using sensors and continuous communication, trucks can build up an accurate picture of the capabilities of trucks behind the leader. One important example is braking distance. This could later allow for the intelligent ordering of trucks within a platoon, sending the better-performing truck to the back, and improving safety.
“In several ways, North America is the best initial region for platooning. For example, distances on the highway in America are much longer compared with Western Europe”
The likely mandating of DSRC for passenger cars, along with the ever-increasing use of cellular communications in vehicles, means drivers could receive alerts on where platoons are operating and where they may appear. This could potentially help the public warm to the idea of heavy-duty trucks autonomously cruising down the highway in tight formation.
On the issue of public acceptance, Switkes is confident. “It’s a very important area, but on the whole, we don’t see any big issues,” he asserts. “To begin, much of where platooning will be allowed is not where the majority of general public driving is done. We’re talking interstates – the major US highways outside of cities, extended stretches of which are not a usual feature of the daily commute.
“In addition,” he continues, “what we’ve found is that platooning actually makes things easier for road users. It’s easier to drive around a set of platooning trucks than it is a set of manually-driven trucks. We think the public will see this and learn from it quickly.” Peloton has built the system to handle situations such as cut-ins, where drivers move in to the gap between platooning trucks.
Besides connectivity, the other important dimension of platooning is self-driving capability. Peloton’s initial technology automates only accelerating and braking, which for now is helpful from a regulatory perspective as the laws governing the use of autonomous vehicles – which differ widely from state to state – do not apply.
But the company is already looking ahead to what more advanced offerings might look like. Eventually, says Switkes, trucks could steer themselves: “The next step is higher levels of automation for following-trucks. The development of capabilities for the front truck will take longer, and for the time being they will still require a driver to deal with difficult situations. But more automation of rear trucks for certain portions of the journey is a certainty.”
What is important for a supplier like Peloton, he says in conclusion, is offering value to fleet customers at each stop along the automation curve. Platooning will initially save on fuel and repair costs, and will later go on to save on labour costs. Full automation will also provide opportunities to fully optimise truck use in terms of routes and dispatch timing. It is not, he insists, automation for automation’s sake.