Ready or not, truck platooning is inching closer to reality. And it offers a real chance at fuel savings.
Autonomous vehicles get all the headlines. But despite the buzz, they are at least several years away at the earliest, and perhaps even 20 or more years away from becoming commonplace on American roadways. Platoons, though, are a completely different story.
What is platooning and why are we getting so close to real-world application? Platooning reduces aerodynamic drag by closely grouping tractor-trailers together via electronic coupling. The vehicles travel at a relatively close distance to minimize drag. The first vehicle serves as the leader with each successive truck in the platoon connected and controlled autonomously by the lead truck. A driver in a trailing vehicle could pull his vehicle out of the platoon at any time and all remaining vehicles would automatically close the gap between vehicles.
Platoons have a chance to significantly cut into U.S. diesel fuel use. According to research conducted by researchers with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), U.S. trucking contributed 7.5% of total U.S. GHG emissions in 2013 and consumed 64.9% of all energy in the freight sector.
The two biggest advantages that platoons have over autonomous vehicles is that there is always a driver in a vehicle ready to take control at a moment’s notice, and they generally use technologies already in production and widely available. Those technologies include collision mitigation.
Peloton Technology, which recently announced the closing of a $60 million Series B funding round, has been the leader in developing this technology, working with Volvo and several fleets, including a test with C.R. England, to showcase platooning technology.
“Platooning systems can enhance efficiency and safety,” the company says. “According to NACFE, the lead truck in a platoon can enjoy 4.5% fuel savings, while the follow truck can enjoy a 10% fuel savings.”
Safety is also enhanced with a platoon, Peloton says, pointing out the use of a number of technologies that many fleet drivers already take advantage of in their cabs.
“Peloton’s platooning system builds on best-in-class safety systems like forward collision avoidance and mitigation systems, lane departure warning, and air disc brakes,” it notes. “These systems operate at all times, even when platooning-capable trucks are not platooning. [In addition], the Peloton system offers over-the-horizon alerts to hazardous road, traffic, and weather conditions, and the Peloton Network Operations Center approves platoons only under defined safety parameters, including specific road, weather, and vehicle conditions.”
Platoons are managed continuously by a cloud-based Network Operations Center that connects to trucks through cellular and WiFi communications. Cloud-based supervision limits operation of platoons to specified roads in safe driving conditions.
The company also recently signed an agreement with telematics provider Omnitracs.
“Peloton has developed technology that is on the cutting edge of advanced driver assistance systems and the automated vehicle movement,” said John Graham, CEO of Omnitracs. “Its emphasis on spatial awareness is a crucial and foundational component of improving truck safety and fuel efficiency.”
Under terms of the agreement, Peloton will help to roll out “practical, cost-saving automated vehicle technology featuring leading-edge cybersecurity to Omnitracs customers, beginning with two-truck platooning.
“We are excited to be part of the first partnership of a commercial platooning system supplier with a leading fleet management provider,” said Joshua Switkes, founder and CEO of Peloton Technology. “We will offer expanded opportunities for platooning across the broad customer base that Omnitracs has attracted by focusing on cost advantages for fleets.”
A key benefit of the partnership for fleet customers will be optimized matching opportunities for inter-fleet platooning, Peloton says, leveraging Omnitracs’ routing and dynamic dispatch applications to provide navigation assistance and clear savings calculations for scheduled and ad-hoc platoons of trucks from different fleets.
A report presented earlier this month at the SAE World Congress Experience in Detroit by members of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) highlighted other benefits of using platoons in commercial transportation.
“Platooning is a demonstrated method of groups of vehicles travelling close together actively coordinated in formation at high speed that has the potential to reduce energy consumption resulting from aerodynamic drag,” the authors note. “Trucks are ideal applications for platooning due to their technical characteristics and mode of operation (several vehicles driving for long distances along the same route, often concentrated in few corridors).”
In 2014, NREL conducted field tests of platooning technology. The test included three SmartWay tractors - two platooned tractors and one control tractor - at varying steady-state speeds, following distances, and gross vehicle weights. While platooning improved fuel economy at all speeds, travel at 55 mph resulted in the best overall miles per gallon, the agency reported. The lead truck demonstrated fuel savings of up to 5.3% while the trailing truck saved up to 9.7%.
That savings can be very attractive to fleets who look for every cost-saving measure possible. NREL researchers point out that platoons are not very effective at low speeds and not every route is an optimal case for platoons.
“For large trucks operating extensively on highways over long distances the fraction of platoonable miles at high speed can be significant,” they wrote.
Peloton says that it expects to release a commercial two-truck driver assistive platooning system for fleet operations on a limited basis later this year.
“Next year, we expect such deployments to grow in terms of number of fleets, trucks, and routes,” the company says.
The system will “will keep drivers in control of critical driving tasks,” it adds. “Specifically, the lead truck driver maintains acceleration, braking, and steering control, and continuously monitors the driving environment. The follow truck driver maintains steering control and the responsibility to monitor the driving environment; only acceleration and braking are automated while platooning.”
NREL studied how many trucking miles are potential fits for platoons. Using data from about 200 real-word Class 8 tractors covering over 3 million miles, the authors concluded that a significant number of miles are in play.
“Our results show that approximately 65.6% of the total miles driven by combination trucks (Class 7 and 8) could be driven in platoon formation, leading to significant energy and emissions savings,” the authors wrote. “For targeted applications, which are likely to be early adopters of connected and automated technologies, this fraction increases to approximately 76.6%.”
Using previously published data to determine an approximate 6.4% energy and emissions savings for each team of platooned vehicles, NREL estimated an overall 4.2% reduction in energy use through widespread adoption of platoon operations.
“With these bounding assumptions, the widespread adoption of platooning operations for combination trucks in the United States could lead to a total savings of 1.5 billion gallons of petroleum-derived fuels (equal to 1.1% of the current US import of oil: 2.7 billion barrels in 2015 ) and 15.3 million metric tons of CO2 (a 0.22% emissions reduction),” the authors note.
There are regulatory hurdles holding back platoon adoption. According to Peloton, 21 states have numerical following distance rules which require legislative action to authorize freight platooning operations.
“Among these 21 states, 2 (Michigan and Arkansas) have already changed their following distance laws to permit freight platooning; similar legislation is pending in additional states; and four of these states have provided legislative or administrative allowance for more limited testing and/or demonstration activities,” Peloton explains. “Twenty-nine states have variable following distance standards based on a ‘reasonable and prudent’ or equivalent standard that could allow for platooning under current law. For clarity, these states can provide administrative acknowledgement of the legality of platooning operations.”
The company is also working with stakeholders and it says the reaction has been positive.
“In general, we have seen positive stakeholder reaction to the ability of platooning to save fuel and provide economic incentives for fleets to adopt state-of-the-art safety systems such as collision avoidance and mitigation systems and air disc brakes, which also improve truck safety when in and out of platoon,” it notes.