Peloton Technology is mapping out a strategy that creates teams of human and robotic driven trucks to lower costs and improve efficiency in the freight industry.
The Mountain View, Calif., startup is developing a platooning system where a fully-loaded heavy-duty truck operated by a driver is linked to an automated truck.
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.
Peloton founder and Chief Executive Josh Switkes detailed the plan at the Automated Vehicles Symposium in Orlando, Fla., Wednesday.
The strategy could speed deployment of automated trucks, improve fuel economy and address a chronic shortage of truckers.
“There are many situations that would be challenging for a driverless truck can be easily handled when you have a human-driven truck in the lead. Construction zones, adjusting to sudden changes in weather, reacting to traffic control, identifying erratic or drunk drivers – these are all things that are straight forward with a human in the lead truck,” Switkes told Trucks.com
“Truck drivers are truly amazing. They are the world’s best sensors,” he said.
In such a system, the driver in the lead truck digitally guides the following truck. Peloton will equip the trucks with so-called Level 4 automation. That means the vehicles can drive themselves but still would have a steering wheel, seats and other equipment to allow for a human driver.
LEAVING HUMANS IN CONTROL
Using a human to guide an autonomous truck in difficult situations such as sticky urban traffic is a growing approach.
Starsky Robotics uses a remote driver to navigate a self-driving truck through thorny traffic and road conditions. The company ran its first test on public roads of a fully autonomous truck without a human in the vehicle in June. The San Francisco self-driving truck startup drove a heavy-duty commercial truck without a driver for 9.4 miles along a highway in Florida.
Freeing a driver from the cab of a following truck in a platoon, or sitting them in a central office where they drive via remote control would allow fleets to expand their operations without hiring additional drivers.
Peloton’s system keeps a driver close by who can attend to any problems that might arise.
“That’s why we see practical, broad deployment much sooner than driverless trucks,” Switkes said.
IMPROVING TRUCKER LIFESTYLE
The drivers of the lead truck in such a team will have additional skills and earn more.
“They will be awarded the best routes and trucks and driving times,” Switkes said.
The system also would speed relay style, or hub and spoke operations. That provides a better lifestyle for drivers, allowing them to spend far more nights at home, he said.
Twenty states have passed legislation that allows at least some platooning with human drivers, according to a report issued Wednesday by the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
The list includes several large trucking states such as Texas and Pennsylvania. But other states, including California, New Jersey and New York with their big port complexes and distribution networks, don’t allow commercial platooning.
Most states must change vehicle code regulations to allow platooning, mostly to let commercial vehicles follow each other more closely.
The following distance in a truck platoon is as little as 30 to 50 feet. The technology links the trucks so that the accelerate and slow in tandem. Reaction times and brake lag are reduced to almost nothing because technology is performing those roles. The main variable, Switkes said, is braking distance. It differs based on the types of brakes the trucks use and their loads.
The Competitive Enterprise Institute report said platooning is one of the more promising forms of automated vehicle technology.
“Platooned vehicles can travel more closely together at highway speeds, mitigating traffic congestion, improving fuel economy and increasing vehicle throughput without costly roadway capacity expansions,” the report said.
“Trucking companies are eager to move their goods with fewer workers, in order to both address the chronic shortage of qualified commercial drivers and reduce labor costs,” according to the institute.
But others question the value of platooning.
“Platooning expects an inconsistent world to act consistently,” said Dave Jackson, chief executive of Knight-Swift Transportation Holdings Inc. It is 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,” he said earlier this year.
EXPECTED FUEL SAVINGS
Commercial tests with loaded trucks are saving an average 7 percent in fuel consumption, Switkes said.
“We are talking about fuel savings while hauling cargo in real traffic. Using different weights of loads each day and two trucks,” Switkes told Trucks.com.
Peloton’s data comes from commercial operations trials with six customers using trucks in the heaviest Class 8 weight segment. Switkes declined to release the names of the customers.
REAL WORLD TESTS
In Peloton’s real world tests the lead trucks uses 4 percent fuel while the following truck’s consumption falls 10 percent. That creates an average 7 percent savings.
Using two drivers per truck to stay within federal rules, Peloton drove platoons for more than 700 miles daily.
“Look at the math. If you are platooning at that mileage for a year, you save $7,000 annually in fuel per truck,” Switkes said. “These are big savings and based on customer operations they are achievable.”