Once seen as the first step to autonomous trucking and a boost to fuel savings, platooning – the practice of digitally linking two or more trucks that follow one another closely to reduce wind drag – is seeing its support pool shrinking.
Critics warn that while technically feasible, platooning faces significant issues that stand in the way of grouping trucks together to increase fuel economy and reduce emissions.
One hurdle is figuring out which truck gets the position with the best fuel savings if the vehicles are from different fleets. Others include how to combine trucks with different brake wear and reaction times in digital convoys, especially if they are operated by varied owners with different maintenance schedules. Significant regulatory and vehicular traffic issues also must be addressed.
“Platooning expects an inconsistent world to act consistently,” said Dave Jackson, chief executive of Knight-Swift Transportation Holdings Inc., the nation’s largest for-hire carrier with 30,000 trucks. “To get two drivers, two loads going to the same location at the exact same time, it just doesn’t happen very often.”
Traffic issues, including passenger vehicle drivers cutting between platooning trucks, present a safety issue. Such issues also can hurt efficiency because of the time it takes to re-establish a digital connection.
“As little as 15 or 20 minutes negate any fuel savings,” Jackson said.
Daimler Trucks North America, which owns the Freightliner and Western Star truck brands, supported platooning as recently as 2017 because customers were interested. Last June in Oregon, it demonstrated a two-truck platoon. At the event, executives questioned whether platooning technology could be commercialized.
Daimler nixes platooning
This January at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Martin Daum, the head of Daimler Trucks, said the world’s largest truck maker was stepping away from platooning.
“The technology we would have to put in does not quantify the savings,” he said.
Daimler Trucks demonstrated a suite of optional automated driver-assistance technology and fuel-saving aerodynamic features at CES that will debut on the 2020 Freightliner Cascadia this fall. The hardware and software necessary for platooning was not included. Coincidentally, Daimler won the Best Transportation Technology Award at CES.
What’s happening is that while platooning looks good as a concept on paper, in the real world it is weighed down by practical issues like pairing trucks from different fleets with incompatible hardware and software, said Antti Lindstrom, a trucking analyst at IHS Markit.
“I am not convinced that platooning will or can be used to a degree that it would have an impact on fuel mileage,” he told Trucks.com.
However, supporters of platooning remain convinced it is a valuable marker on the path to autonomous trucking.
Truck makers and others are continuing to test the technology on public roads. Platooning pioneer Peloton Technology uses vehicle-to-vehicle communication to connect braking and acceleration between two trucks. The communications link allows the lead truck to control the acceleration and braking of both trucks simultaneously. Braking times are a fraction of human reaction time.
Depending on the truck’s position in the platoon, fuel savings of up to 10 percent were projected in a demo conducted by Volvo Trucks North America and FedEx in North Carolina last summer.
In a 2018 study of data from 57,000 Class 8 Volvo Trucks covering 210 million miles, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory found up to 63 percent suitable for platooning.
The use of vehicle-to-vehicle communications to make braking faster should reduce rear-end collisions, a Volvo Trucks spokesman said, adding that the “core benefit of platooning is increased safety.”
“We will continue our efforts to test how platooning can be implemented to increase traffic safety on our roads,” said Fredrik Klevenfeldt, Volvo Trucks’ director of marketing communications
Peloton has heard all the criticisms, but is undaunted.
“We recognize that fleets will be skeptical until they see the savings firsthand, but Peloton and our customers disagree with those who question the viability of platooning,” said Rod McLane, vice president of marketing at the Mountainview, Calif.-based company.
Five years of testing led to limited commercial runs in late 2018 with “several very large fleets,” McLane said.
Peloton has patented its approaches to the vehicle-to-vehicle communication, cloud computing and hardware and software it uses. The company won’t say how many miles of platooning it has amassed.
“We are confident we have by far the most road miles of anyone,” McLane said.
The U.S. Army, which started testing platooning in 2016, might be close behind.
Later this year, the Army will deliver 60 trucks with automated platooning technology to bases in Fort Sill, Okla., and Fort Polk, La. Testing will help determine how well five or seven trucks would perform together in combat conditions. The Army thinks having a driver in only the lead truck would protect soldiers from makeshift bombs in the road and allow them to be assigned to other tasks.
There will be situations where platooning should work, such as when two trucks need to go to the same location at the same time, said Mike Roeth, executive director of the North American Council for Freight Efficiency.
“If you’re running a five-truck concert tour around the country, that is the perfect platooning application,” he said.
Managing expectations and influencing state regulations to allow platooning are important to its success, according to McLane.
“We have been very diligent in completing the proper safety engineering and testing to make sure we are bringing the right system to market,” he said. “We have also been able to engage with state regulators to update following-distance laws.”
The Competitive Enterprise Institute shows 17 states have approved platooning in some form, according to Marc Scribner, a senior fellow who compiles an annual scorecard. All states could allow platooning within five years, he said.
“The benefit-cost calculation may not pencil out for every firm, but we are encouraged that several of the largest carriers continue to support this technology,” Scribner said. “Future generations of automated platooning promise even greater benefits.”
Operational efficiency from autonomous and connected trucking could add $3 billion in profit to the trucking industry by 2030, industry consultant McKinsey & Co. said in a September 2018 report.
“In any disruption like autonomous vehicles, the initial steps are going to be more modest than what the industry is expecting,” Asutosh Padhi, a McKinsey senior partner, told Trucks.com. “In the next three to five years, we’ll see platooning start to kick in. It’s a good steppingstone toward autonomous.”