Old-school truckers brag about how closely they have tailgated, or drafted, behind another big rig as a way to catch a slipstream and save fuel. Now technology is about to take that to the next level.
Truck manufacturers and vendors are investing heavily in technology that would allow trucks to safely draft off one another.
So-called platoon technology allows tightly contained, digitally connected packs of two to five trucks to drive in formation to reduce wind resistance and increase fuel efficiency. The pack can be controlled by a “captain” in the cab of the front vehicle, with the rest following with their own drivers or eventually, autonomously.
Although the concept is controversial — Missouri just blocked testing — truck makers and shippers are betting that the technology will be widely adopted.
“It’s hard to argue that there’s a reason not to do platooning,” said Jan Gildemeister, a partner at Boston Consulting Group’s San Francisco office. “The electronics are going to be quite good and will avoid more accidents than it will cause.”
Peloton Technology, a company that plans to roll out a platoon system next year, has raised $18.4 million from 13 investors since July 2015. It is funded by major automotive, technology and shipping businesses or their investment arms, including Magna International, Castrol InnoVentures, Volvo Group Venture Capital, UPS Strategic Enterprise Fund, Denso International America, Intel Capital, Lockheed Martin and Nokia Growth Partners.
Peloton — named after the cycling term for a big group of racers who join together to conserve energy — tethers pairs of trucks through vehicle-to-vehicle communications, radar-based active braking systems and vehicle-control algorithms. The system developed by the Mountain View, Calif., company allows two trucks to make a digital handshake so that as soon as the driver of the first truck hits the brakes, the second truck starts braking simultaneously. This creates a tightly spaced, fuel-efficient convoy.
The vehicles connect to each other through a package of sensors, hardware and software Peloton installs on its trucks. The company also has a display screen and input device that is part is installed on the trucks.
But some are skeptical that 80,000 pound big rigs can travel close together at highway speeds.
While regulations vary by state, generally trucks must maintain a separation of two to three seconds, according to the American Trucking Associations.
The following distance between two platooning trucks is usually 50 to 80 feet, said Jonny Morris, Peloton’s spokesman. However, that can vary with factors such as the fuel efficiency of the front and rear trucks, the weight and braking ability of each truck, as well as weather and road conditions.
“The biggest problem for tech companies is getting states to change their following-too-close laws,” said Joe Rajkovacz, director of governmental affairs for the Western States Trucking Association. “I have heard from some in law enforcement that this won’t happen.”
The American Trucking Associations is monitoring the technology but has not endorsed it.
“It is not well tested at this point; it really has only been tested off road and on track in controlled conditions,” said Ted Scott, an engineering director at ATA.
Some truck drivers say they aren’t ready to embrace platooning technology either.
DuWayne Marshall, a veteran trucker from Watertown, Wis., said he was spooked by reports of hackers digitally hijacking vehicle controls.
There have been at least two documented cases, including one last year in which two cyber security experts remotely hacked a Jeep and drove it into a ditch in St. Louis. Earlier this month, University of Michigan researchers said they could take control of a big rig and trigger unintended acceleration and disable the truck’s engine brake.
“Who is to stop a hacker from hijacking a platooned truck, which could be a great tool for evil-doers who want to cause mayhem?” Marshall said. “I don’t think the time has come for this technology.”
Peloton said it has taken precautions to protect its vehicles from hacking.
“We use the strongest available, independently-audited systems,” Steve Boyd, co-founder and vice president of external affairs, told Trucks.com. “We encrypt all communication between the trucks and with the network operations center.”
The company also ensures that all communications between the trucks are mutually authenticated and Peloton actively monitors for and against potential malicious attacks.
Nonetheless, at least one state doesn’t want platooning on its highways.
Last month Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed a bill that would have instructed the state’s traffic regulators “to approve and implement a connected vehicle technology testing program,” paving the way for platooning.
“Using Missouri highways as testing grounds for long-haul trucks to deploy this unproven technology is simply a risk not worth taking at this time,” Nixon said.
Nixon said he was dissuaded after learning of the fatal crash in May of a driver in a Tesla Model S. The electric car drove into a big rig when its autopilot system failed to see the truck as a hazard.
“It’s unfortunate that he [Gov. Nixon] is banning the testing on truck platooning,” the bill’s sponsor, Missouri House Republican Charlie Davis, told Trucks.com. “He is confusing two types of technology. Tesla vehicles have an autopilot feature, but the drivers in the truck platoons retain steering control while on the road.”
But even as Missouri balks at truck platooning, other states are flocking to pass legislation approving testing.
Ten states have approved platooning testing or fleet trials through legislation or administrative approval, Peloton’s Morris said.
An additional 20 states have expressed interest in platooning testing trials or “are currently considering approvals for testing activity,” he said.
Peloton’s system has undergone 15,000 miles of highway testing in Utah, Nevada, Michigan, Ohio, Florida and California.
“The goal of our system is to be interoperable across all available truck, engine, transmission and braking configurations,” Morris said.
The company is working with big trucking and automotive names including Volvo, Mack, Peterbilt, Kenworth, Navistar, Cummins, Bendix and Meritor Wabco.
“We plan to hold trials with major freight fleets next year where our systems will be operating on fleet-owned trucks in normal freight operations,” Morris said.
Government entities are also evaluating platooning technology. The U.S. Army conducted a test in live traffic on a Michigan highway in June. The Federal Highway Administration is studying the potential benefits, releasing a feasibility study of driver assistive truck platooning last year that concluded that the technology is near market-ready.
The Netherlands initiated a European Truck Platooning Challenge earlier this year that demonstrated platooning on public roads by six makers of automated trucks — DAF Trucks, Daimler Trucks, Iveco, MAN Truck & Bus, Scania and Volvo Group. The vehicles travelled from several European cities to the Netherlands.
Whereas Peloton has drivers in its two-truck platoons, Daimler Trucks tested three autonomous, or self-driving, trucks in a platoon formation in live traffic on the A52 autobahn near Dusseldorf, Germany.
Platooning won’t work in all modes of trucking, but it has economic potential, Gildemeister of Boston Consulting Group said.
“I don’t think platooning works if it operates in downtown San Francisco, where a child could run out in the road,” he said, “but it may be an option if it goes on Interstate 80 from Chicago to somewhere in Sacramento.”
The savings potential could be huge.
Peloton’s tests found that the rear truck could save an average of 10 percent in fuel costs. There’s even an aerodynamic advantage for the lead truck, creating a 4.5 percent fuel savings, Morris said.
The industry spends more than $140 billion on fuel annually, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
Truck platooning will be road ready soon, said Michael Lukuc, a connected-vehicle expert at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. Platoons are the first step to a more distant rollout of fully autonomous trucks.
“It’s going to be a long time before trucks are fully automated on the roads,” he said. “It’s so far off, when you think about an 80,000-pound vehicle driving down the highway with no one behind the wheel.”