Platooning is ready for prime time, but are fleets, drivers and governments?

 Vehicle platoons can provide fuel savings and safety benefits, but they are only legal in 17 states currently.

Vehicle platoons can provide fuel savings and safety benefits, but they are only legal in 17 states currently.

Five experts from around the globe put their collective heads together and offering a global perspective on where truck platooning is right now, and where it will be in the next decade as freight systems look for more efficient means of moving goods. According to the experts, platooning is a “now” technology ready for commercial operations, but there is still some resistance and operational challenges that must be overcome.

The panel was held during the Movin’ On by Michelin conference in Montreal on Wednesday.

A name familiar to most in North America, Mike Roeth, executive director of NACFE, kicked off the discussion with an overview of NACFE’s October 2016 Confidence Report on two-truck platooning.

“What we found was two-truck platooning was one step in the automation of trucks,” he explained. “It sounds coy, but we’ve been automating trucks for decades.”

Roeth pointed to collision mitigation systems, lane-departure warning and other advanced safety systems that are part of autonomous trucks, but also provide the foundation for platooning, which can generate a 4-5% fuel savings for the lead truck and up to a 10% savings for the rear truck at a 50-foot following distance. As much as 50% of all new truck sales in the U.S. include at least one advanced safety system, he said.

“We also think there is a benefit that if we’re saving that much money, it will help scale the technology,” Roeth added, before noting some of the challenges platooning faces, including regulatory concerns, whether drivers will accept traveling as close as 40 feet to the vehicle in front of them, and fleet acceptance and deployment.

Bill Brentar, director of maintenance and engineering for UPS, echoed Roeth’s point about driver acceptance. UPS teaches drivers safe following distance, “and now we are telling them it’s okay to travel at 40 feet,” he said.

Brentar also noted operational challenges to platooning as vehicles do not leave the yard at the same time. There are also questions about whether UPS – or any company for that matter - would be willing to platoon with a competitor vehicle.

“When you limit the opportunities of when you platoon and who you can platoon with, you limit the opportunity for fuel saving,” he said.

Currently, 17 states allow platooning covering some 45,000 miles. Peloton is the leader in developing platooning technology, and Shad Laws, director of advanced development, declared Peloton’s PlatoonPro system ready for commercial deployment.

“Getting fleet owners into what we’re doing is really easy,” he said. “Getting drivers to buy in is the real challenge.”

The buy-in of drivers is important, Laws said, because Peloton is paid on a per-mile basis. “If the driver never pushes the button, we don’t get paid,” he noted.

Laws explained that the Peloton system sets the following distance based on what is deemed safe, using cloud connectivity to make it work. For instance, in rainy conditions, the distance may be set further apart to where the system determines to be a safe stopping distance for the trailing vehicle. The system communicates braking instructions to the rear vehicle in 33 milliseconds, he said.

Bernard Jacob, scientific director of IFSTTAR, a France-based consultantcy, noted that platooning can potentially add up to 6 hours of drive time in a day between two drivers. In Europe, drivers are limited to 9 hours of driving in a 24-hour period, so by alternating the lead truck in the platoon, drivers could see additional driving hours and move freight further, turning 466-mile runs into 590-mile runs.

IFSTTAR is starting Project “Ensemble” next week with six OEMs to work on developing platooning solutions that cross makes and models. He noted that if you can run a 4- to 5-truck platoon, you could increase by 1.2 to 1.5 times a road’s capacity.

Even with all the efforts surrounding platooning, it still requires cooperation among truck makers, such as noted with Project Ensemble. Scania, though, has taken to building its own autonomous technologies, said Christian Bergstrand, customer project manager. “As we see it, we are developing part of the technology to an autonomous transportation system,” he said.

But, Bergstrand said Scania no longer sees itself as just a truck maker, but on its way to becoming a “solutions provider.” Part of that is platooning, although Scania is also working on electrification and other initiatives as well.

Platooning, though, is the near-term technology and provides benefits beyond just fuel savings. As the technology improves, Bergstrand expects the gap between vehicles to close further and as it does, efficiency will improve and that will lead to better use of driver hours.

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