Since 2014, when research into commercial development truck platooning started to gather pace, the CV sector has seemingly waited with bated breath for this technology to become a reality on the roads.
The benefits of a system where trucks can travel on motorways with specified gaps between them using autonomous technology are easy to comprehend. By using advanced technology trucks form organised, identically spaced convoys and can therefore drive closer together over long distances, thereby cutting air drag friction, bringing down fuel consumption and cutting costs.
Figures produced by the European Automobile Manufacturers projected that platooning could reduce the CO2 emissions of trailing vehicles by up to 16% and of lead convoy vehicles by 8%. As well as that, there are safety benefits too, since a team of drivers paying attention to the road is better than one.
As far back as 2015 Dutch research organisation TNO Voorwaarden outlined a scenario in its white paper Truck Platooning – Driving the Future of Transportation, that would be music to the ears of logistics firms, “Imagine a self-driving truck as part of a road train. One that can drive solely by communicating with the truck driving in front of it, forming a truck platoon.
“The driver of the leading truck takes the first shift, driving from Rotterdam to Paris. The driver of the following truck is asleep, as their truck automatically follows the platoon leader. Near Paris, the drivers switch their roles and reverse the order of the trucks. The driver of the now following truck can take a nap or perform administrative work. There is no need to stop for a rest; resting can be done while driving.”
Recognising the benefits, both the vehicle industry and start-ups have been active in platooning to date, with the likes of Daimler, Volvo, MAN and Scania deploying on-road prototypes. Right up until 2019, the appetite for platooning seemed strong following successful real-world trials with MAN Truck and Bus in partnership with DB Schenker and Fresnius University of Applied Sciences in Germany. This trial concluded that platooning is not only possible but ‘safe, technically and easily applicable in the routine of a logistics company’.
Since then, the platooning juggernaut seems to have slowed, particularly given the impact of COVID-19.
Indeed, HelmUK, a platooning project under the technical leadership of Highways England and policy direction from the Department of Transport, has been put on hold because of the pandemic, stating, “Highways England and the Department for Transport have made the decision to pause the programme for a period of time. All care is being taken to ensure the safety, health and well-being of all involved in the road trials. An evaluation will be made at a future agreed date to understand the changes in both governmental guidelines and the traffic flow on the UK road network. The evaluation will determine when the HGV road trials will restart.”
However, HelmUK added, “All parties involved remain committed to delivering the trials which are the first in the UK to include a realistic commercial operation.”
Richard Bishop, a strategy consultant across the automated vehicles industry and an advisor to Peloton Technology – a company developing a commercially viable system – said platooning has taken something of a back seat in press coverage as autonomous vehicles have dominated the headlines.
Bishop, who is also second vice chair of the American Trucking Association’s Automated and Electric Truck Study Group, told the TNB, “The media has just found what I call solo driverless trucks more interesting and sexy, but the reality is the companies developing platooning are still very much out there.
“Peloton Technology started this off with Level One platooning, where there are drivers doing the steering and are attentive in both trucks, and now they are working on a second generation where the following trucks are driverless. The first-generation platooning is not driverless, but it still has a very substantial benefit to fuel economy, safety, and driver teamwork.”
So, what is the timescale, and will we ever see ‘truck platoons’ on the UK roads?
In Europe, a project called ENSEMBLE has been working on inter-brand platooning technology since 2018 and is expected to finish next year. ENSEMBLE is planning a multi-truck platooning demo this autumn to show inter-operability across seven truck brands.
According to Bishop, platooning introduction has been a movable feast, saying, “It has stretched out a bit over the years. Early pronouncements were as early as 2017 for commercial introduction. As with other AV pioneers working in robo-taxi (such as Waymo or Cruise) it just takes longer to get the last little bit done. Peloton has been the main player in the game over these past few years and they are currently engaging in a customer acceptance trial with a major fleet that includes fleet drivers platooning with freight on customer routes. Since July 2018, they have participated in seven customer pilot demo’s with major fleets along routes in multiple US states. I expect first generation Level One platooning-equipped vehicles could well be on the roads in 2021.”