On yet another one of those long, pointless road trips that seemed to punctuate my life starting when I got my license, I was plying the roads somewhere in eastern Pennsylvania with a friend. He told me that on long trips he’d often relieve the boredom by finding another car from the same state as his destination, and then just follow it. I wasn’t sure then how staring at the same car, hour after hour, mile after mile, would do anything but increase the boredom while making you look sort of creepy, but it seemed to work for him.
What works for college kids in cars also works for long-haul truckers, and the concept of a convoy has long been a fact of life on the road and a part of popular culture. Hardly a trip on the US Interstate goes by without seeing a least two truckers traveling in close formation, partly for companionship and mutual support but also for economic reasons. And now technology is poised to take convoying to the next level, as platooning becomes yet another way to automate the freight.
I’m Not Tailgating, I’m Drafting
The physics of platooning are simple: things moving through the air experience drag. Aerodynamic drag increases along with speed and directly correlates to the amount of energy needed to keep moving forward. The more surface area that a body presents to the air it’s moving through, the more drag it experiences.
Truckers have always taken advantage of drafting as a way to reduce their fuel costs. By driving in the partial vacuum in the slipstream of a lead vehicle, the following vehicle can realize significant fuel savings. The lead vehicle experiences reduced drag, too. This is because the drag-inducing wake turbulence normally present at the trailing edge of the semi trailer is transferred to the rear of the following vehicle. Drafting is an aerodynamic win for all the trucks that participate in a convoy.
But two vehicles operating in close proximity at high speeds can be a recipe for disaster, especially if the lead driver needs to stop quickly. That’s where platooning comes in. Platooning is really just drafting on steroids – a technology assist for what truckers are already doing. Multiple companies are looking into systems that coordinate platooning for long-haul truckers, and one, Peloton Technology, has fielded a working system:
The PlatoonPro system provides both the wireless systems needed to find platoon partners and coordinate them into position, and the sensor suite and vehicle controls needed to safely operate the platoon. It uses a dedicated short-range communications (DSRC) link to keep platoon members together and operate the vehicles safely. Platoons are prevented from forming in congested areas by geofencing, which is determined by a network operations cloud (NOC) that also serves to find platoon partners and to warn drivers of approaching road hazards.
Wherever You Go, I Shall Follow
PlatoonPro is currently commercially available and in use by six customers, and platooning is allowed by law in 18 states in the USA. But as impressive as PlatoonPro is, it’s really just an intervehicle cruise control system. While the fuel savings of platooning can be considerable — up to 7% between the platoon partners — both trucks in the platoon still require drivers.
As we’ve pointed out many times before in the “Automate the Freight” series, drivers are expensive; not only must the company pay their salary and benefits, drivers take sick time and vacation, are subject to quit at a moment’s notice, and potentially bring a raft of personal problems with them to the driver’s seat. From a trucking company’s point of view, the fewer drivers they have to employ, the fewer the headaches they’ll have. So while some companies are in pursuit of fully-autonomous long-haul trucks, Peloton sees value in replacing only half of them.
Enter automated following, recently announced by Peloton. In an automated following platoon, only the lead vehicle has a driver. The following vehicle, equipped with the same suite of sensors and linked to the lead through the same vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) system as PlatoonPro, is driverless. The following vehicle takes commands for accelerating, braking, and turning from the driver in the lead vehicle. An automated following platoon instantly doubles the freight a single driver can haul, halving personnel costs and still realizing the increased fuel economy of drafting.
While PlatoonPro qualifies as an SAE Level 1 or “driver assist” automated driving system, the fact that there’s no safety driver in the following vehicle makes automated following a Level 4 system. That’s a far cry from fleets of Level 5 driverless trucks plying the highways with cargo, but as Peloton points out, it’s far more doable in the short term.
There are clear benefits to a Level 4 system other than the fuel and personnel savings. Shipping companies will benefit from more flexible logistics, with follow-trucks teamed to multiple leads over the course of a long route. The lead drivers would benefit by operating shorter routes, which would increase recruitment and retention. In addition, the lead driver would need more training and accept more responsibility, and therefore command more in the way of compensation.
Automated following seems like a clear win for both shipping companies and drivers, at least those with the skills needed to adapt to the new system. It’s an interesting idea that should serve to bridge the gap between where automated shipping currently is and where it can be someday.