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Smart people, smart money say platooning works

Smart people, smart money say platooning works

Platooning, or running trucks close together on the highway to take advantage of aerodynamics and improve fuel efficiency, is coming sooner than many people in trucking think. The concept is obvious to anyone who has driven behind a big box trailer; the trick, of course, is to build a system that safely converts theoretical possibilities into real-world results.

And Mountain View, CA-based Peloton Technology is the safe bet to be the first to deliver. Here’s why.

Peloton Technology

For starters, brains. Founder and CEO Josh Switkes has a Stanford PhD in mechanical engineering, and he worked on self-driving car projects at Volkswagen and Audi before finding an idea he could build his own company around. 

I’ve been chatting with Switkes for a while, visiting him originally at his Redwood City facility. It was a truck-suitable garage in a modest industrial park, with his decaled rally car parked out front and his dog bedded down inside. And that’s how entrepreneurs get started.

In the 18 months or so since, Peloton has moved to a bigger garage closer to the heart of Silicon Valley.  The staff as has nearly tripled from 8 to 23 people, largely software engineers with a few truck drivers and technicians, and the test fleet has doubled to four trucks.

Of course, companies in Silicon Valley don’t pick up employees without picking up investors. And, again, this is why I expect to see a lot trucks platooning very soon.  

Crunchbase, which tracks investment in startups, reports Peloton has received nearly $17 million from 12 investors, with a Series A round led by Denso and Intel Capital, along with UPS Strategic Enterprise Fund and Castrol innoVentures. Just this week, the company announced an agreement with Lockheed Martin, whose contracting work for the U.S. military includes driver assistance and vehicle automation technologies.

Of note to the trucking industry, Volvo Group Venture Capital also has invested in Peloton. I made a call to Jonas Landstrӧm, investment director for Volvo Venture in the U.S., to find out how these investments work, and what Volvo expects from the deal.

“Our role is to invest in companies where we think there are, potentially, commercial collaborations,” Landstrӧm says. “I work really hard to understand if there are win-win situations, and then I facilitate a lot of contacts to make sure the company and the appropriate person within Volvo are aware of the opportunities to work together.”

The bottom line is to identify and assist entrepreneurs whose products might ultimately benefit Volvo customers—and to earn a return on the investment.

As for Peloton, Landstrӧm explained that he has followed the company’s progress and saw just the sort of opportunities for collaboration that he targets.

“I’m amazingly impressed by the technology that they’ve developed and how far along they’ve come in commercializing this,” Landstrӧm said.

And the investment is working as planned, both Landstrӧm and Switkes agreed.

Josh Switkes (Peloton Technology)

“They’ve already been very helpful on the engineering side,” Switkes said when we spoke last week in Dallas. “[The Volvo Venture representatives] are really connectors. They know the company really well, so if I ask them a question they know who to contact.”

Switkes, who recently visited the Greensboro, NC, headquarters for Volvo Trucks North America, called the executive management team “very future looking.”

Since Peloton bills itself as being “platform neutral”—that is, the technology is being designed to work with all major North American truck brands and safety systems—Switkes points out that Volvo is a minority investor and doesn’t hold a board seat, and there is no “exclusivity” in the arrangement. Peloton is also doing development work with Peterbilt, for instance, and is talking with all of the OEMs.

With 15,000 miles of testing logged thus far, the company is now moving toward production.

“I think the fleet and industry interest has gone better than I originally expected. People always talk about trucking as being a slow-moving industry, but what we’ve seen is they can move quickly if they’re interested in something,” Switkes said.  

Indeed, the company has a trial deployment with a fleet—operationally well beyond the limited test runs—scheduled for next year. Asked about a possible 5-year timeline for full production, Switkes immediately interjected, “well before that.”

As to building a “critical mass” where there are enough Peloton-equipped trucks on the road so drivers readily will be able to find platooning partners, Switkes suggests it will happen quickly in densely traveled truck corridors.

He also notes that a lot of fleets operate on a regional basis, and that’s where the early opportunities will be. Similarly, Switkes anticipates fleets will learn to dispatch their trucks in a way to assure more opportunities to platoon.

“Fleets today have no incentive to send trucks out at the same time. A lot of them could, with trucks going from hub to hub—but they actually try to keep them apart,” Switkes said. “Certain fleets have external reasons for their dispatch timing, but I think most fleets choose an arbitrary timing, coordinate services and try to follow that. But there often is no real need for that sort of schedule.”

Along with the safety of the hardware and software, Peloton is devoting a lot of its development effort to understanding how the driver uses the system, as he discussed in more detail during a “future truck” presentation last week.

More to come, and very soon.

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