Truck platooning set to move out of slow lane

Change is coming to the world of transportation as we move closer to truly connected fleets. Advanced safety features leading to full autonomy will make today’s truck drivers and the roads they travel safer as the industry slowly gravitates toward driverless trucks.

ADAS and autonomy now and future

When it comes to ADAS, Ian Riches of Strategy Analytics says that we’re in an era of democratisation of existing features: technologies such as traffic-jam assistance, adaptive cruise control and fully autonomous parking trickling down from the ultra-high end to becoming available and even standard on mainstream vehicles.

Even advanced emergency braking, already mandated in Europe, will slowly work its way into production vehicles in the United States, Riches thinks. He points to the commitment by 20 USautomakers to making automatic emergency braking a standard feature on all new cars no later than 2022. “The system has to be given a chance to work first,” he says.

It’s very difficult to quantify or predict the effect advanced driver safety systems will have on safety or the economics of transportation, according to David J. Smith, senior development engineer driver, assistance systems, at Daimler Trucks North America. In the first place, such systems are not that common in trucks yet. Besides that, the true impact of ADAS in passenger cars is far from clear.

Besides the fact that vehicle sales numbers don’t include which features were included in vehicles, driver behaviour plays a role. While intelligent headlights that automatically illuminate curves have been quite effective, Smith notes: “The results on lane-departure warning systems, which you’d intuitively feel would increase safety, have been neutral. Drivers are not necessarily aware of what to do with the warnings.”

Active or semi active systems that are able to take some control or intervention will have the biggest impact, he thinks. As driver assistance and active-safety features continue to evolve, he says: “Data is going to be key. The focus on driver safety and improving efficiency through these systems is the selling line for customers.”

In terms of connected services, Richard Wallace, director of transportation systems analysis at the Centre for Automotive Research, foresees the rollout of smart parking systems that can help drivers find rest stops. For example, such a system could send an alert that the driver is approaching the end of his hours of service, and that in 40 miles, there’s a truck stop with a vacant slot.

A recent project for the Texas A&M Transportation Institute for Texas Department of Transportation shows how ADAS systems can be leveraged to provide semi-autonomy. Serving as the systems integrator, Ricardo leveraged systems from a variety of suppliers to deliver a truck platooning system. Technology included systems for forward-crash prevention, lane keeping, emergency braking and blind spot monitoring. “To do platooning, I need to be able to see truck in front and follow it. If that truck speeds up or slows down or changes lanes, it needs to do same,” notes Lee Barnes, director of connected and autonomous vehicle business at Ricardo. Ahead of full platooning, adaptive cruise control – being able to maintain a safe distance from the vehicle in front – has tremendous value for truckers, he says.

Data benefit

While most agree that it’s just too early to be able to quantify the effects that ADAS features or autonomy will have on transportation-industry key performance metrics, companies are betting big on the benefits of using data to improve planning and logistics. When Uber announced it was acquiring Otto, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick emphasised that the deal is about “logistics, artificial intelligence and robotics systems” and he pointed to the intelligence the company has gained from the 1.2Bn miles its drivers travel each month.

In addition to sharing fuel savings, Wallace identifies other services that platooning or autonomous trucks will need. One is tolling: there would need to be a universal system like EZ Pass that would automatically collect tolls. Roadside weigh-ins and inspections would also have to change, according to Wallace. It would be difficult to handle with a platoon of autonomous trucks. This old-fashioned system is ready for an overhaul anyway, he says. For example, when a truck is loaded and sealed up, it could be certified them to meet road requirements. “Wireless technologies will help,” he thinks.

Daimler’s Smith thinks there is more opportunity for data-related services in the United States, with its less-strict data protection laws. Today’s telematics companies that provide tracking and reporting to fleets have laid the foundation for some new ideas. “A lot of it will be having people with these newer skills for analysing large data sets coming into the industry and making it more valuable,” Smith says.

Platooning: here, now

Platooning has been demonstrated in several successful trials both in the United Statesand in Europe. While many used existing ADAS systems to provide platooning functionality, we won’t necessarily see it in real-world situations very soon.

Otto has promised to make a retrofit system. Uber swallowed Otto just three months after its official launch; according to news reports, Otto will continue to focus on its aftermarket autonomous truck technology, as well as building out a logistics platform.

However, the majority of trucks currently on the road probably could not be upgraded today. “It depends on what capabilities the vehicles have to start with, explains Steve Shladover, California PATHprogramme manager. For example, he thinks it’s essential that the truck already be equipped with adaptive cruise control.

“It would be prohibitive without it,” he says. “Even with it, it’s not simple, because each model of truck is different. The system needs to be tuned in perfectly to match the capabilities of the truck and all the data on the truck data bus.

Backend services for platoons

Fuel savings is among the highest priorities for fleet operators and tests by Peloton Technologies have shown that the lead truck in a platoon can reduce fuel consumption by 4.5%, while following trucks can save 10%. Peloton includes a cloud-based network operations centre in its offerings that approves platoons based on existing road conditions, identifies platooning partners and approves platoons.

Could it go further? Could Peloton or a third party create an accounting system that fairly divides the cost savings of platooning between different fleets, regardless of their position in the convoy?

“Setting up a marketplace to share that is not that hard,” says Wallace. If the USdoes see a DSRC mandate, Wallace believes that some of this platooning automation could happen relatively soon. If not, “It may take until we have pervasive 5G technology.”

California PATHhas been testing such a system that it calls “cooperative adaptive cruise control.” It modified two Volvo trucks by adding DSRC communications, as well as modifying the design of the control systems, so that they can follow more closely and respond more quickly to changes in the behaviour of the truck in front. The collaborative part means that drivers can join and leave the platoon whenever they want.

It’s found that drivers aren’t willing to wait very long to gain that 5% to 10% fuel savings. In its driver survey, Shladover says, “Nobody seemed willing to wait more than five minutes.” A platooning backend service could perhaps help drivers make the decision by providing data: ten minutes of your time waiting to platoon with X particular vehicle going in your direction for Y number of miles will save Z amount of money. Who could handle this, Shladover says, is unclear. “It’s not real enough for people in the industry for someone to see a business opportunity.”

Wes Mays, director of OEM product innovation at Omnitracs, agrees. “We’re continuing to watch it,” he says, but “I’m not sure if the industry is going to head toward a model we’ll be able to capitalise on. As this new technology matures, there could be a model where a platooning system could send a significant amount of data to their back office – or not. We’re not seeing it head in that direction. At this point looks like vehicle will be pretty much independently controlled.”

The simplest idea of all is offered by Sam Abuelsamid, senior research analyst with Navigant Research. He suggests that adaptive cruise control systems would include “platoon mode”. A driver whose truck was so-equipped could pull in behind a likely leader and hit the platoon mode button.

“Normally, adaptive cruise control keeps a longer gap between you and vehicle; if you had platoon mode, that would tighten up that gap,” Abuelsamid explains. Since platooning is part of the US DOT’s Vehicle to Infrastructure programme, a truck using this peer-to-peer system could follow closely using DSRC communication. Trying to give everybody credits or pay them out would be far too unmanageable, Abuelsamid thinks. “If you have a string of trucks not all going to same location, it would probably be easier to do it on an ad hoc basis. Drivers could just get on the radio and talk to each other.”

Changing role of truck driver

There are two competing visions for the future of truck drivers. One has them taking on broader responsibilities as semi-autonomous or autonomous trucks take over the repetitive work of keeping between lanes, etc. As Otto proclaims on its website: “…our self-driving trucks will allow drivers to rest while their truck is moving, and our platform will ensure drivers can easily find loads and are paid fairly”. In this vision, independent drivers might take on responsibility for logistics and even have training that will allow them to troubleshoot vehicle systems.

There’s an alternative vision: A lot of truck-driving jobs will just go away. After all, Uber already is planning for the day when there will be no more Uber drivers. It aims to lower the cost of rides, it says, with a fully autonomous fleet. Mays of Omnitracs sees platooning becoming part of the driverless vehicle system – and those driverless trucks automatically platooning until close to the last mile of deliveries. “You’ll see an interconnected network of service providers that are carrying freight in a matrix organisation.”

He points to Amazon’s data-centric, tightly organised shipping system as a prime candidate for autonomous trucks. Amazon could automatically call trucks to its loading docks, load them and then send them forth in platoons to its delivery stations, from whence human-piloted semi-autonomous or traditional vehicles could carry them to homes and businesses. Mays says: “We’ll see an evolution in the trucking business, and this kind of automation will lead it.”

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