With the simple press of a finger, trucks fall in line behind the leader, saving fuel and making trucks safer than even the best Class 8 semi-tractors on the road today.
That’s the promise of the platooning truck company Peloton Technology, based in Mountain View, Calif., according to founder and Chief Executive Josh Switkes.
Platooning is an emerging vehicle technology where digitally tethered convoys of two or more trucks travel closely together to reduce drag and increase fuel efficiency.
“Many trucks have collision mitigation or automatic emergency braking, which are very effective,” Switkes said at this week’s Automated Vehicles Symposium in San Francisco. “We want to be safer than those trucks.”
Switkes said rear- and front-end collisions could both be reduced with platooning’s use of vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-cloud technologies, along with communications and video systems for the drivers.
Without platooning, a truck driver manually follows another vehicle. A safe following distance is considered 500 to 545 feet to give the driver time to perceive a situation, react to it, account for any momentary distractions like sipping coffee, brake lag and differences in braking power.
With a platooning truck, however, the following distance is reduced to between 30 and 50 feet. Perception and reaction times, as well as brake lag, are reduced to almost nothing because technology is performing those roles. The main variable, Switkes said, is braking distance, which differs based on the types of brakes the truck uses and the load the truck is carrying.
Reducing distance between trucks, Switkes said, has the additional safety benefit of preventing traffic from cutting in and subsequently reducing the risk of collisions with those vehicles.
Yet even as the sensor and software technology required to operate platooning nears its first commercial rollout, there are still a host of regulatory and legal questions that need to be addressed, according to trucking industry analysts.
“If the guy in the front has disc brakes and is running pillows and the guy behind it has old front brakes and is running a full load of steel, what happens if you have a panic braking situation?” asked Kenny Vieth, an analyst at ACT Research.
The issue in such a scenario isn’t just if the second vehicle can stop without rear ending the first, Vieth said. It’s liability, especially if the two trucks belong to different fleet operators. Who, or what, is to blame? The driver or the technology?
While the liability issue remains an open question in the autonomous vehicle community, Peloton, like many trucking companies moving into the semi-autonomous vehicle space, is developing systems for its drivers to maintain their attention.
“The drivers when they platoon, people think they’re staring at a wall in front of them,” Switkes said. “You’re doing basically the same tasks: steering, being aware of what’s going on.”
Steering is almost the same as in a non-platooned truck; the driver just doesn’t have to worry about the distance in front. In Peloton’s following trucks, a video feed shows drivers the lead truck’s perspective. And a voice communication system lets drivers talk to each other when they use their left foot to press a button on the floor that opens up a private channel.
For trucks to platoon, they need safety features such as automatic emergency braking and adaptive cruise control to maintain the 50-foot following distance between trucks. About 40 percent of new Class 8 trucks now have such equipment built in, according to the nonprofit North American Council for Freight Efficiency.
“A lot of the trucks out there are platooning capable,” said Mike Roeth, the council’s executive director.
But that does not mean they are fully automated or driverless.
“Platooning is a real opportunity in the short term that’s kind of being lumped into the whole automation discussion of jobs going away,” Roeth said.
The biggest opportunity is, of course, fuel savings. In a two-truck scenario, platooning saves 4.5 percent in fuel for the front truck and 10 percent for the truck following it, Roeth said.
“Companies who have point-to-point routes with multiple trucks,” Roeth said. “If they can stay inside their fleets, those will be the earliest adopters.”The biggest barriers to platooning, Roeth said, are how to link up separate fleets when little is known about a driver’s experience or the truck’s brakes or cargo. There could also be issues with how to divvy up the savings between the leading and following trucks, he said.