Truck Platoons – The Road Ahead

The benefits of being part of the chain gang

Truck Platoons are on the fast track to reality

With trials about to start in the UK, the age of the wirelessly connected truck is starting to look inevitable. A dream come true for some, a living nightmare for others, but what can we really expect from the future of autonomous fleets?

Simply, truck platooning refers to a fleet of trucks connected by smart technology.

Communicating with each over throughout the journey, the trucks drive at the same speed and follow the same manoeuvres exactly, changing lane, accelerating and breaking in unison. A system that allows the trucks to travel in very close proximity, as the recommended distance needed for human reaction is significantly decreased.

The purpose of platooning is to make the vehicles safer, cleaner and more efficient – However, there are potential benefits for everyone on the road.

Safety

90% of road accidents come down to one factor – human error.

Reaction time is critical to road safety, but unfortunately even the best drivers suffer lapses in concentration; we’re only human after all.  Platooning is designed to reduce reaction time through communicated speed, predictive driving and automatic breaking.

How quickly can technology react? Well, the average human reaction time is 0.25 seconds on a good day, the reaction time of a smart assisted platoon truck is 0.1 seconds, so pretty much instantaneous.

However, for many people there is a natural fear of handing over the steering wheel to non-human intelligence. What if there was glitch in the system? What if the truck became sentient and wanted to harm us all?

Critics rightly point out potential problems in truck communication. A short drop out in the Wi-Fi could lead to the trailing vehicles careering off across the motorway, but it’s a misconception that the human factor will be totally removed from the equation. At least for the foreseeable future, a human driver will always be present in the platoon.

So far in the trials, two variations of platooning have been used. The first gives full control to the technology, but a human driver monitors the behaviour from the lead cabin, ready to take over at any moment. This is called ‘Cooperative Adaptive Cruise Control’ (CACC).

Of course there is still an argument that drivers in this situation may not be as engaged as they would be if they were actually at the wheel. A lack of focus that could be disastrous in an emergency.

This is why the other platoon system may be preferable. This scenario, called ‘Tightly-coupled platoon’, sees an actual human driver in control of the lead truck at all times. Their actions are then communicated to the trailing autonomous vehicles, who follow their lead and manage the distance between the trucks.

As with all smart technology, there are also obvious worries regarding hacking; that a smart truck could be hijacked by terrorists or thieves after the cargo. It is these fears that the next batch of trials and advances in wireless security hope to avail.

Cost

Fuel costs make up about 30% of the operational costs of a truck. Faster, streamlined and highly-efficient fleets will reduce that amount significantly.  

So, how are these savings made?

Platoon trucks travel in a much closer proximity than their traditional counterparts. Typically that’s an 8-10 metres gap, end-to-end, compared to the usual 50 meter standard currently used on our roads. This means that the vehicles trailing the lead are caught in a slipstream, advantageous in that they have less air resistance to contend with, which in turn minimises fuel consumption and reduces fuel costs.

The efficiency of the platoon also means less time on the road, leading to further savings for operators across the entire supply chain.

However, the new technology is expensive. Converting trucks so that they are smart enabled will be costly, and initially time consuming. Will the savings in fuel, time and labour outweigh the investment?

Like all technology, it’s hoped that the costs of the trucks will come down as the technology develops and is accepted by the mainstream. Only time will tell on this one.

The Environment

Of course the more fuel we save also means a reduction in carbon emissions.

Again, because the trucks travel in close formation at a constant speed and with less braking and acceleration, a platoon can reduce carbon emissions considerably.

Currently, trucks have an average CO2 emission of 2.6 kg per litre of diesel, the 10% fuel reduction will absolutely lead to substantial environmental benefits.

Now let’s also factor in the industry wide assault on CO2 emissions that includes truck design, alternative fuels and improved logistics technology and it would seem the benefits of platooning are inarguable.

Congestion

A platoon contains three or four vehicles.  Following the same route, traveling at the same speed and with just a short space between them means that there’s more space on the road for other drivers.

Breaking and accelerating simultaneously, the convoy effectively acts as one truck, never overtaking each other, therefore eliminating one of the biggest causes of traffic jams and boosting the overall traffic flow.

What does this mean for other drivers on the road? Drivers of smaller vehicles have voiced concerns that they simply would not be able to contend with a tightly packed, three truck behemoth on the motorway. However, the brains behind platooning insist that the smaller vehicles have been factored into the smart system and the trucks will be able to sense and accommodate cars joining then on the journey.

Again, time will tell how accurate these claims are.

The Future

The benefits of platooning are undeniable, however, there are still enough valid concerns that could derail the movement before it reaches its full potential. As trials continue in the UK, Europe and the US, we’ll need to see hard evidence to answer the concerns of operators, drivers and regulators.

To do this the various organisations developing the technology need to communicate, share research and focus their efforts, an authority that can transform the transport and logistics into a safer, more efficient and greener industry.


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