Platooning is closer than you think – just like the trucks

For many fleet managers, platooning seems like a dream come true - two trucks traveling in line, very close to each other, saving fuel without sacrificing safety. Platooning saves fuel because two tractor-trailers traveling closely, usually 40 to 50 feet apart, set up air flows that help to 'push' both trucks forward. In Peloton Technology, Inc. tests with CR England, platooning saved 7% at 65mph – 10% for the rear truck and 4.5% for the lead truck. So far, Peloton has logged 14,000 miles in all of its tests.

At the heart of platooning is a wireless electronic communications system, also connected to the internet, that tells the second truck when the first truck driver has braked. The second truck brakes almost instantaneously without driver intervention. In essence, both trucks brake at the same time.

Fleet Owner talked to Josh Switkes, Founder and CEO of Peloton Technology about the technology aspects of platooning and Randy Mullett, Vice President for Government Relations and Public Affairs at Con-way and a board member of ITS America about the policy and regulatory aspects needed to get platooning on the road.

1. How does the braking system work?

Switkes: With vehicle-to-vehicle communications, the rear truck knows exactly what the front truck is doing. We know how much engine torque it's applying, we know how fast it's going, and most importantly, we know when and how much the brakes are applied. We know all this almost instantly, about ten milliseconds between when the front truck's brakes are applied and when the rear trucks knows about it.

2. Is the second driver's view of the road impaired?

Switkes: Your view of your lane ahead is blocked, but your view outside of that lane is fine off to the sides. We also help the second driver know what's coming up on the road through a video link. We take a camera that's looking forward from the front truck, and send that video feed to the rear truck through the wireless communication, so the rear driver sees the road ahead. You use it like another mirror.

3. Does the second driver get bored looking at the rear of the lead truck?

Switkes: Unlike some platooning tests in Europe, like the Sartre project [in Europe], we use manual steering so the second driver has complete control. He or she is engaged all the time. We're not replacing the driver. We’re taking their skills and adding an extremely fast braking reaction.

4. How do you match up trucks and decide the following distance?

Switkes: This is the job of the cloud-based Network Operation Center. Trucks are connected to the internet. We don't let the drivers choose [their position], and the reason we don't let them choose is because it's how we increase safety. We order the trucks based on their braking ability. Whichever truck can stop shorter is always going to be in the back of the two-truck platoon. We only platoon when it's safe depending upon the type of road, weather and  traffic conditions.

5. How do trucks find each other?

Switkes: Many fleets have multiple trucks leaving a distribution center or hub at the same time or very close to the same time. Not every fleet has these trucks together, but we've found a good number of fleets that do. We plan to deploy first with these fleets. It's important to realize that trucks do not have to be going to the same destination. The can platoon for a while then split in different directions. There's still a savings in doing that.

6. How much does it cost to outfit a truck?

Switkes: We're not talking about that publicly. Most fleets tell us they expect payback in about seven months. We don't do anything to the trailer, only the tractor. We charge fleets a per-mile fee while their trucks are platooning and saving fuel.  

7. What's it like to ride in a truck that's part of a platoon?

Mullett: I rode in platoon vehicles last summer at the ITS World Conference in Detroit.  Peloton had a demonstration, and we drove around interstates in Detroit. I'm confident that the technical issues have been surmounted, and that it can be done in a safe way.

8. What are some of the non-technical or policy and regulatory issues that still need to be addressed?

Mullett: You might think that technology is the problem, but it’s the policy issues that need to be worked out. For instance, we need harmony on following distance, because there are minimum following distances in some states. Also, how do we keep cars from jumping in and out of the space between trucks? There also needs to be commonality about things like where to place the video screens so you don't confuse drivers using different vehicles. There are also mundane issues like what happens when one driver in a platoon needs to go to the bathroom. 

9. What about driver acceptance?

Mullett: It took some drivers a while to get used to new technology like automatic transmissions. There will be a little bit of an acceptance curve on platooning.

10. What non-technical issues concern fleet managers?

Mullett: If the rear truck has better fuel economy, and the trucks are from different fleets, how do you to share the fuel economy in a fair way?

11. Will car drivers call police if they see trucks following so closely?

Mullett: That's another issue that needs to be worked out. Trucks need some kind of signage telling other drivers that they're platooning and driving safely.

12. What's the overall biggest challenge to platooning?

Mullett: I think that our biggest challenges are having our policymakers and the public be able to keep up with and accept the technology without killing the idea. I think we're about a year away from a serious pilot program. It may take another couple of years before we get enough density to see a large difference in [national] fuel savings.

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