Platooning – a driving strategy featuring digitally tethered trucks traveling in single file to reduce drag – is winning supporters across the country and abroad.
But for a group of panelists gathered in Long Beach, Calif., on Wednesday at the Advanced Clean Transportation Expo, the focus shouldn’t be on the technique’s ability to save money and lives, which – in their collective outlook – is a given.
Instead, they’re most interested in making platooning a mainstream reality – how best to incorporate technologies that link heavy-duty trucks through telematics and across carriers while keeping drivers engaged and regulators satisfied.
“In trucking, the constant is relentless improvement, but now we’re seeing a plateau where investment in technology like aerodynamic shaping gets you very minimal returns,” said Rick Mihelic, aerodynamics program manager for the North American Council for Freight Efficiency. “So where do we go next? Multiple vehicle interactions.”
Think of platooning as a slower, larger version of drafting or slipstreaming in auto or bicycle racing.
Research has repeatedly shown that driving in formation significantly improves fuel economy and reduces the severity of accidents for big trucks – currently one of the most dangerous, fuel-hogging transportation segments.
The data holds in tests involving vehicles of different sizes, in different combinations and in different countries, Mihelic said.
Trials by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, or NREL, showed that trucks leading a platoon pack saw 2.2 percent to 5.3 percent in fuel savings, with trailing vehicles saving 2.8 percent to 9.7 percent, or roughly 6.4 percent per team.
Combination trucks in 2014 drove 169.8 billion miles, sucking up 29.1 billion gallons of fuel. More than 65 percent of that distance could be traversed in platoon formation, according to panelist Michael Lammert, senior fleet test and evaluation engineer for NREL.
He calculated that widespread adoption could reduce total truck energy use by 4.2 percent, assuming a minimum platooning duration of 15 minutes at 50 miles per hour at least. That’s 1.5 billion gallons of petroleum-based fuels and 15.3 million metric tons of carbon dioxide saved annually.
“There’s a big enough carrot there to try to realize this,” Lammert said.
A slew of trucking companies agree. Navistar, Daimler, Delphi, Continental, Volvo, Cummins and many more manufacturers have some sort of stake in platooning technology.
With the financial and safety case generally accepted in the industry, panelists turned their attention to the nitty gritty of platooning implementation.
Peloton Technology, the Mountain View, Calif., company that last month closed a $60 million Series B financing round, is aiming to roll out its vehicle-to-vehicle platooning system without relying on yet-to-be-developed physical infrastructure.
The company plans to launch a set of commercial trials with fleet partners and then move into production and deployment, using a rough 18-month timeline, according to co-founder Steve Boyd.
So far, the process has been a collegial one – which Boyd said is helpful because he envisions platooning as a strategy that is shared across competing fleets.
“Interoperability and standardization is important,” he said. “Within the same fleet, you can get a degree of pairings that’ll work, but more are possible if you go cross-fleet.”
Theoretically this way Wal-Mart can take advantage of platooning when the only other truck on the road is an Amazon vehicle. Peloton’s system would be designed so that both rigs can communicate with each other and determine if their speed and braking capabilities, weight load, body density and other features are compatible.
Boyd said Peloton is having “exploratory discussions” about data transfers from platooning arrangements. Fleet customers would have prime ownership of the information they’re sharing through the system, but Boyd said they could opt in to anonymized, aggregated data pooling to improve returns.
Scrubbing the information even more could make it useful to highway safety officials and regulators, who could use the reports to understand how freight flows – similarly to how Waze uses traffic data to optimize routes.
Some tests of the technology have explored driverless options. Even Peloton, whose model currently requires a driver at all times, hands much of the decision-making to the platooning system. Using GPS and radio-frequency identification technology to create a virtual geographic boundary, or geofencing, the program decides when weather, traffic, topography and other environmental factors are inappropriate for platooning.
But Tim Smith, general manager of business strategy and planning for Navistar International Corp. said that automation won’t make truckers obsolete. Instead of being laborers, drivers will start to look more like managers.
“They’ll become more highly trained and skilled and will be employed to manage multiple vehicle assets and use autopilot-like technology to improve efficiency and reduce risk,” Smith said.
Boyd agreed that “hysteria” about employment effects is overblown. For all its digital components, the Peloton system is still designed with drivers as part of the equation: a video feed in the rear truck shows its driver what the lead driver is seeing. When another vehicle cuts into the platoon, the technology gives full manual control back to the drivers.
“We’re all about driver empowerment – we see a continued role for drivers in freight even as automation increases,” Boyd said. “Eventually, a transformation occurs in the workforce – the jobs change and become better.”
By then, panelists hope the government will have set parameters for platooning.
“There are these blanket statements, this fear that regulations will stifle innovation,” Mihelic said. “But at present, we’re somewhere between no rules and a complete tangled mess – fleets need stability to make investments in this type of technology, and regulation is one way to enforce standards.”
Already, Michigan, Arkansas and Tennessee have given platooning the commercial go-ahead and eleven other states are considering approvals, Boyd said. The U.S. Department of Transportation has several projects in progress with partners such as Caltrans, Volvo and Peterbilt.
The industry is trying to feel out the new administration, but panelists said they were hopeful that transportation regulators would be supportive of platooning.
“There’s some give and take in there – we’re in a poker game with bluffing and betting,” Mihelic said. “But at some point, there will be some rationality.”