A shortage of long-haul truck drivers could help autonomous guided semi-truck platoons beat driverless cars to real-world use. Experts say letting big trucks draft each other on the highway is easier than solving urban challenges faced by automated vehicles.
Platooning allows groups of digitally tethered trucks to closely follow each other to reduce drag and increase fuel efficiency. Some truck manufacturers also believe it will increase safety by electronically reducing braking times in the vehicles following the lead trucks. Eventually, platoons could be led by a single driver, according to trucking industry executives.
Already companies and organizations such as Volvo Trucks, Daimler Trucks, the U.S. Army, Partners for Advanced Transportation Technology at U.C. Berkeley and Peloton Technology are developing platooning systems. The technology combines adaptive cruise control and forward collision warning with vehicle-to-vehicle communication. The safety technologies provide automated vehicle control to keep a tight formation. The vehicles talk to each other through Direct Short-Range Communications.
Peloton claims fuel savings exceeding 7 percent. It uses a manually driven truck to lead the platoon. Drivers in following trucks can do other things while monitoring system performance. The trucks stay about 40 feet apart compared with a recommended 324 feet between non-platooning trucks.
Eventually, the drivers in the following trucks could disappear.
“I have a couple of bets with some of my colleagues that we might see this before we see automated robo-taxis in downtown Manhattan,” said Jason Roycht, vice president of commercial vehicles at supplier Robert Bosch LLC. “From a certain perspective, this is a less variable operation to prepare for.”
Sixteen states and several European countries support truck platooning and demonstrations. Meanwhile, Bosch is transferring advanced autonomous technology for passenger cars to semi-trucks, which travel pedestrian-free and predictable routes. At a recent Bosch technology program at its proving grounds in Flat Rock, Mich., Roycht described how highway corridors with driverless convoys could operate.
Groups of three to five trucks would travel 200 miles between way points. They would load or unload and return on the same route or go on to the next stop. The lead truck might have a safety engineer on board.
“Several [trucking firms] are looking at this scenario,” he said. “This fits very well with a quality of life … where you can see your family at night.”
Roycht said he is sensitive to cybersecurity concerns. The trucking industry has to decide to invest in redundant computing power on every feature to combat hacking. “You don’t want to have this truck connected to the outside world and lose control of braking or steering or acceleration.”
Volvo has conducted platooning tests in California, Virginia and Europe.
“We are vocal in our support of the concept,” said Brandon Borgna, a Volvo Trucks spokesman.
While much of the industry focuses on potential fuel savings, Volvo sees platooning as an important safety advancement by slashing the time it takes for the following trucks to brake in traffic and emergencies.
“The communication between the trucks is almost instantaneous,” Borgna said.
The American Trucking Associations support truck platooning as a near-term solution to a crucial shortage of drivers in the industry after initially taking a wait-and-see approach.
With a projected shortage of 63,000 drivers this year and 174,000 in 2026, the industry needs solutions. An October 2017 ATA analysis said truckers average 49 years old compared with 42 for other workers. A coming retirement wave means half of 898,000 new drivers hired in the next decade will replace retiring drivers.
“Automated driving is the next step in the evolution of the safety technology currently available,” said Michael Cammisa, ATA vice president of Safety Policy, Connectivity & Technology. The trade group is working with the U.S. Department of Transportation to remove regulatory barriers to advanced testing of autonomous trucks beyond platooning.
“The business case is overwhelming,” said Steve Sashihara, president and chief executive of Princeton Consultants Inc. “The self-driving autos business isn’t too big until you get to shared fleets. Self-driving long haul is a no-brainer. The only thing keeping it from happening is the regulations.”
The U.S. Army also sees potential.
The U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center started testing platooning system components in 2016. Last October, it hosted the US/UK Coalition Assured Autonomous Resupply demonstration at Camp Grayling, Mich. Two more joint efforts are planned this fall and in 2019.
“There really is quite a bit to Leader-Follower [platooning] in general and its benefits,” said TARDEC spokesman Doug Halleaux. He listed fewer soldiers in dangerous convoy missions, improved safety with driver-assist features and fuel savings as advantages.