Freight transport is a risky business. The trucks themselves are an expensive investment while the drivers are hard to come by. At the same time, the roadways are full of other vehicles controlled by frequently careless or distracted drivers—an accident waiting to happen. It’s no wonder that interest was strong when platooning technology was first proposed. The technology promised to improve fuel economy and reduce road congestion. For drivers it meant a less burdensome role behind the wheel and a much safer experience. Truck manufacturers and fleet operators alike were keen to give it a go and numerous pilots were soon underway.
Despite the great fanfare, there was little follow up and no concrete commercialisation announcements. An industry that loved to shout about how efficient and safe it could be had suddenly grown quiet. Then came Daimler Truck’s devastating conclusion that platooning offered ‘no business case’. One of the early movers on this front, Daimler had evaluated the technology in US long-distance applications for several years. In the end, it decided that the money and manpower were better focussed on automated driving (SAE Level 4).
Platooning technology is by no means driverless technology. Regardless of what the drivers in the platoon are doing, they still play a role and still draw a pay check
It wasn’t just Daimler that saw more problems with the technology than benefits. Other industry players had pointed to the difficulty of making a practical business case for it. A big part of the problem is that the trucks in a platoon all experience different fuel economy benefits. If it’s a mixed fleet platoon, how do you share out the savings? Do the trucks need to rotate position every so often in order to spread the benefits equally?
Then there were driver issues. The following trucks in the platoon handle much of the driving mechanics on their own but still require active supervision by a human. This had professional drivers worried—were their jobs going to be handed over to untrained newbies that simply had to monitor the system all day? For fleets already struggling to retain and attract drivers, introducing potentially divisive technology may not have seemed like a good idea.
An industry that loved to shout about how efficient and safe it could be had suddenly grown quiet
Pivotally, platooning technology is by no means driverless technology. Regardless of what the drivers in the platoon are doing, they still play a role and still draw a pay check. That means fleets face the additional cost of the platooning system while still paying out a full wage to the driver. The challenge is to verify that the system produces enough productivity savings to justify its cost.
While the business case for platooning may be shaky today, the technology that underpins it could represent a solid step forward on the roads towards autonomous driving. The sort of vehicle-to-vehicle communication employed in platoons will be key to the safe deployment of driverless fleets in the future. If this is an essential stepping stone, can the industry afford to bypass it?
This and other key issues are explored in more detail in Automotive World‘s Special Report: Platooning in the truck industry.’