November 10, 2020

Truck Platooning: Can It Bring Autonomous Vehicles Into the Fold?

Post by Maria Kolar, Waycare Marketing Manager

Imagine an 18-wheeler truck, weighing 35,000 pounds empty, and 80,000 pounds (40 tons) fully loaded, barreling down the highway while the driver’s hands are off of the steering wheel. The idea of doing this intentionally sounds both idiotic and dangerous. But what if we looked at it from another perspective? That vehicle you’re seeing is part of a fleet of highly-tested trucks equipped with state-of-the-art automation technology capable of reacting in one-fifth of the amount of time a human would need. Still seem crazy? 

This concept could optimize the transport of goods, making it safer, more efficient, and favorable for the environment. Let’s back up – what are we talking about? Truck platooning, or flocking, is a method of driving a group of trucks together in a convoy or fleet using connectivity technology and automated driving support systems. The European Automobile Manufacturers Association explains, “The truck at the head of the platoon acts as the leader, with the vehicles behind reacting and adapting to changes in its movement – requiring little to no action from drivers.” In other words, the vehicles move closely together in a group formation, with one truck leading the way. 

In the U.S., most of our goods are carried through the trucking industry. In fact, trucks move roughly 72.5% of the nation’s freight by weight (according to the American Trucking Associations). Those apples that you picked up at the grocery store? That most likely came off of a truck. The gas you used to fuel your car? This was probably delivered by a fuel truck. 

While the trucking industry employs a huge quantity of Americans and does a lot of good for the U.S. economy, there are many drawbacks to it – take safety for example. Large trucks aren’t easy to operate and they have major blind spots making it difficult to see other drivers on the road. Furthermore, they are bulky and heavy, meaning that they can’t always brake or accelerate as quickly as a regular vehicle. The USDOT cited that there were a staggering number of deaths and injuries on the roads that involved large trucks, “In 2018 there were 4,951 people killed and an estimated 151,000 people injured in crashes involving large trucks.” 

Truck platooning makes trucking safer while ensuring that drivers remain employed – a win for employers and employees alike. The Swedish Manufacturing Company Scania Group is making major headway in the effort to bring truck platooning to the forefront. While testing its truck platooning technology in 2018, the company proved that it can be carried out safely and reliably. As four semi-autonomous trucks drove down the road in a group formation, an intruding vehicle cut into the platoon. Without missing a beat, the truck behind the vehicle automatically slowed down, creating a larger gap and giving the vehicle a safer distance. Next, the company performed a brake test. When the lead vehicle initiated a full brake, the rest of the vehicles in the convoy quickly stopped, reacting even faster than a human could. 

With ever-increasing congestion on the roadways, truck platooning would take up less space on the roadways and even pose less of a burden on the environment. With trucks driving close to one another and keeping the same speed, aerodynamic drag is reduced. The Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy explains, “…the lead vehicle cuts through the air and reduces the amount of air hitting the front of, and flowing between, the following vehicles. This is similar to when race cars or cyclists draft off one another in a race. The reduced aerodynamic drag on all of the vehicles in the platoon means that the trucks use less fuel…” With the reduction in air friction, truck platooning could reduce the trucks CO2 emissions.

A few states in the U.S. have  jumped on the bandwagon to begin testing methods for truck platooning. A tri-state collaboration between transportation agencies and educational institutions in Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, called the Smart Belt Coalition, recently conducted its first on-road test of truck platooning. The Coalition worked with Locomation, a start-up founded by five autonomy experts from Carnegie Mellon University. Locomation’s technology platform enables two trucks to form a convoy, where one truck assumes the lead role while the other follows. In the recent test, two trucks traveled Pittsburgh, PA to Toledo, Ohio, and finally to Detroit, MI. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the test was a success although more testing and validation will be required prior to any wide scale deployment. 

So why isn’t truck platooning the standard in long distance trucking?

A few obstacles still stand in the way. Many states are lagging behind in updating their laws to exempt truck fleets from tailgating rules which prohibit trucks from following too closely to one another. Furthermore, while trucks can be retrofitted with the needed software to enable platooning, trucking companies may be resistant to accepting this new technology which they fear may displace them. 

In order for truck platooning operations to become more widespread, both long-distance trucking companies and the government will need to get on-board. Truck platooning will require a standard set of regulations for all the states. So, let’s start the conversation today. Let’s spread the message and make sure our congressional leaders hear it. Truck platooning is a step towards road safety, environmental protection, and building public trust in autonomous vehicles. The technology is ready. All we need are the guts to embrace it. So why not get started?

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