FedEx Says Platooning Technology Could Revolutionize Truck Fleets

July 10, 2018 by Jaclyn Trop, @jaclyntrop

Outfitting convoys of big rigs with vehicle-to-vehicle communication technology offers a host of benefits.

John A. Smith

John A. Smith

If the trucks can share information about braking activity, direction, speed and potential obstacles they can maintain a closer-than-usual following distance, forming a convoy that reduces drag and boosts fuel efficiency. The tight formation, or platoon, also can reduce traffic congestion and react quickly to potential obstacles.

Many stakeholders, including trucking manufacturers, fleet operators, academic institutions and government bodies, see the benefits of perfecting these platooning practices and have been testing this technology on the roads.

Last month, Volvo Trucks and FedEx teamed up to demonstrate a three-truck convoy on a stretch of North Carolina 540 known as the Triangle Expressway, an area designated by the U.S. Department of Transportation for piloting advanced vehicle technologies. Volvo Trucks executives estimated that some fleet customers could achieve fuel savings of up to 10 percent using platooning. sat down with John A. Smith, chief executive of FedEx Freight during the joint demonstration with Volvo Trucks to discuss the role platooning technology may play for the package carrier. Here’s an edited version of that conversation.

How do you think will help FedEx run its business more efficiently in the future?

There’s several things we’re excited about. The main thing is the safety aspects that this technology brings to the vehicle and the driver. The second is the fuel efficiency. It’s real important for us. Third, we think that it’s going to enhance the driver experience. We run over 170,000 vehicles a day on the street, so we really believe that this will help us in our line-haul operation the most.

Where do you see the technology for trucking going, whether it means fully autonomous or different kinds of platooning?

For the pickup and delivery model, we do not ever see that being driverless. We just do not feel that you can replace the professional driver on the pickup and delivery side; it’s just not feasible the way we look at it today.

I think the platooning is the first step that we can feasibly test, and that’s the reason that we’re excited about this test with Volvo. And we will continue to watch and look at any type of technology that will help safety driver-assist efficiency. We will continue to look at anything that helps us with our business and helps us deliver to both our people and our customers.

Truck drivers are already in short supply. How do you see the FedEx driver’s role changing?

We feel that there will always be a need for the professional drivers that we have at FedEx. Our chairman puts it best: When you look at airplanes, they’ve been able to take off and land themselves for years, but have you ever been on an airplane without a pilot, or would you get on an airplane without a pilot? The answer is probably no.

So truck drivers aren’t going anywhere?

We will always need our professional truck drivers and that this technology, again, is more of an assist type of technology than a driver replacement. We, in the foreseeable future, do not see that happening.

FedEx has about 170,000 trucks on the road every day. What are the challenges in integrating new technology into such a large fleet?

That’s why we test with our manufacturers, [because] we want to be able to buy a piece of equipment that is standard on those vehicles versus the bolt-on type.

We will look at both, but we would rather go where the manufacturers produce this technology, due to the fact that if they do produce it, they will warranty it. When you start bolting things on to other manufacturers’ equipment, it usually has warranty issues. So that’s the reason that we want to be involved with the companies that build our equipment.

How do you continue the benefits that the platooning technology is offering FedEx once you exit the highway and get into last-mile delivery?

Right now, again, we are more focused on our line-haul operations. When you look at the technology that exists today versus what could possibly be tested, we’re nowhere near that point. So that’s why we really are focused on the line-haul piece from this perspective on platooning.

Read Next: Why Software May Be a Weak Link in Autonomous Trucking

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