How's it work? This could be out on real roads next month, or is already? Yes, two-truck platooning as a commercially available system could be coming to fleets on a highway near you very soon via the joint product that Omnitracs and Peloton Technology announced recently. Fleet Owner got more detail from the two companies, including how the system works, what equipment it involves, states' varying readiness for platooning and more.
At Omnitracs' recent Outlook user conference, CEO John Graham noted that the platooning system would be in use by a few initial customers in certain locations around May — just around the corner — before the expected rollout later this year. The enticement is substantial: this particular platooning system offers significant fuel economy gains of some 4.5% for the lead truck and 10% for the following truck.
Here's a closer look at the system in this Q&A interview with Josh Switkes, CEO of Peloton, and Kevin Haugh, chief strategy and product officer at Omnitracs.
FO: Now that this platooning product is being offered commercially, it almost feels a little sudden. We've gone from platooning being an "emerging" technology to one that's emerged — it's here. Were we just not aware how ready this is for primetime?
Peloton's Switkes: Maybe the answer is yes. We're excited at Peloton that we can bring platooning to our customers this year.
"A big reason why we've been able to develop this to a commercial-ready state is that we're not making a driverless truck. This is a system to make the driver and the truck and the motoring public safer and increase fuel efficiency for trucks, but it's not a driverless truck."
—Josh Switkes, CEO of Peloton Technology
One of the reasons why the timeline is so much more immediate for platooning in trucks — more so than vehicle-to-vehicle [V2V] communication technologies in passenger cars generally — is that a DSR-2 [two-way] radio, which is a V2V radio, is part of the platooning system.
So we don't have to wait for a mandate; we don't have to wait for this to be installed in every car. With our platooning system, they get as part of it a vehicle-to-vehicle radio which enables this kind of functionality directly between those trucks. It's similar to what they're trying to mandate for passenger cars, the same types of V2V radios.
But we can bring this to fleets now, and they're buying the DSR-2 radio as part of the platooning system.
FO: This isn't just the Peloton platooning product we're talking about but a combined Omnitracs-Peloton offering, correct?
Switkes: Yes. This partnership is not just bringing platooning, it's also about developing specialization and other customizations of the Omnitracs services to enhance platooning. It'll help fleets find platooning partners and adjust their dispatch or their routing services to increase platooning.
Omnitracs' Haugh: Omnitracs serves some of the largest carriers in the long haul/over-the-road [trucking] segment, and that's really the sweet spot for platooning.
So we saw that there were some really good synergies between what Peloton does and what we do today technologically and solution-wise for our customers. We have solutions that do a number of things related to safety and efficiency and compliance, and we do things that not only track vehicles but manage and orchestrate what's going on with the drivers.
We know not only where the vehicle is but the plan for where it's going, and we've got technology that helps optimize that [route]. On the driver side, we have applications that interact with the driver such as navigation or workflow-related applications that help manage their activities.
So we believe bringing that aspect of what we do together with Peloton's technology provides an opportunity to accelerate and maximize adoption of platooning to create more matching up, if you will, of vehicles within a given fleet or actually across fleets to platoon where appropriate.
FO: More platooning across fleets? Can you talk some more about that and how you'll enable that?
Haugh: Sure. Omnitracs is involved today in tracking, routing and dispatching vehicles, and there's no platooning going on yet with all that.
But those very technologies and what sits behind them — including the ability to apply optimization and really understand where vehicles should go, in what order, where might they stop for gas and that type of thing — a lot of those underlying technologies can be enhanced to support identifying platooning opportunities.
We can do that for an individual fleet to help know how to adjust vehicles' dispatch times a little bit to allow for more platooning. They might have vehicles rendezvous out on the road to platoon in ways they wouldn't otherwise have been aware of.
But you also have platooning across fleets. Many of our customers are good candidates for this, and because of our relationships, we can use our technology across fleets essentially to identify inter-fleet platooning opportunities that otherwise would be very difficult to identify.
So we believe there's a pretty immediate opportunity here to "marry up" some of that core capability we have around dispatch, routing and other aspects of fleet management along with other elements like navigation to identify and provide a higher degree of matching opportunities for platooning.
FO: So this platooning product isn't self-driving trucks, since the drivers in both the lead and following trucks in the platoon are still steering. Can you describe what this involves from the drivers' perspective?
Switkes: Platooning has different definitions for different companies. With our system, the drivers are still steering. The drivers' feet are just off the gas and brake pedals.
Separate from the government-defined levels of automation, there's a nice system some people use to describe levels of automation in terms of your hands, your eyes and your feet. So picture how normally, when you're driving, your hands are on the steering wheel, your eyes are on the road and your feet are on the pedals.
With this platooning, your eyes and your hands are still "on." You're still scanning the road, your hands are still on the steering wheel, and you're steering in both the lead and the follow truck. But your feet are off the pedals.
The platooning system controls the gas and the brake only, and it does it in this very tightly controlled fashion — we talk about it as electronically coupling the two trucks. We're assisting the driver, and it is a first step of truck automation.
So yes, a big reason why we've been able to develop this to a commercial-ready state is that we're not making a driverless truck. This is a system to make the driver and the truck and the motoring public safer and increase fuel efficiency for trucks, but it's not a driverless truck.
FO: Alright, so what's in the box? What equipment comes with this platooning product in terms of hardware and software? And also, what if I'm a fleet that has technology in its trucks already that may overlap, such as advanced safety systems that use camera and/ or radar equipment?
Switkes: We built the Peloton system to be an add-on, so it is a retrofittable system. It's an add-on that ties into existing adaptive cruise control and collision mitigation systems — so that's things like Bendix's Wingman system or Meritor WABCO's OnGuard.
We found that many fleets we were talking with about the platooning system were already buying those [other advanced technology systems] on most or all of their trucks. So we didn't want to say, "Please remove the radar you have" — instead, we tie into it.
The beauty of that is that the hardware footprint for the platooning system is quite small, which also keeps the cost down. We add the Peloton ECU, we add a display, there's the camera on the windshield, we have some antennas, there's some wiring, and that's it.
We don't have to touch the radar or anything on the front grille; very importantly, we do not touch the engine or the brakes. It's all just electronic integration.
You do need to have an adaptive cruise control system, which means this would be for fairly recent trucks. Most over-the-road kinds of fleets are all running pretty recent trucks anyway.
Initially, we're selling the platooning system as a retrofit. Fleets can choose to put it on brand-new trucks as they take delivery of them or trucks that are already in service, but we're also talking with all the truck OEMs about factory fitting.
FO: Since you mentioned that a truck would need an adaptive cruise system to work with the Peloton platooning product and system, I want to ask about other requirements for the truck. So is this only for the "latest and greatest" trucks — like brand-new, 2017 trucks running Omnitracs' flagship telematics terminal, the Intelligent Vehicle Gateway (IVG), and fleet management platform?
Haugh: First, the platooning technology itself is not dependent upon the Omnitracs telematics system. So as far as the customers who we believe could benefit from this, it's much broader, for example, than just those using the IVG.
And the joint solution that we're talking about will be broader than the IVG. For that solution to occur, at least in the initial phase, it's primarily a software solution that takes advantage of information we can pull off of multiple, multiple devices of ours.
We can pull trip plan information that we utilize on a broad range of hardware applications, for example, and use that to help orchestrate higher levels of platooning and communication with the Peloton platooning solution.
In the future, we can look at leveraging combined hardware and doing things in a more integrated fashion at the hardware level. But there's no real limitation today on doing big things at the hardware level to roll this out on a broad scale.
FO: How about restrictions on where this will be able to be sold? Will this only be for certain states, or is platooning not allowed yet in some places?
Switkes: The laws that apply to this are mainly following distance laws and tailgating laws. Those are all state laws, and we've been working with the states because this is sometimes a gray area whether platooning is allowed or not.
We want to make sure none of our customers ever get pulled over for platooning.
We have 11 states that have authorized platooning specifically, and the most recent was Michigan. Michigan passed a set of laws around automated vehicles in general, but one of them covers platooning. It's a good example, because the state has the most strict following distance law; they require a 500-ft. following distance for commercial vehicles on the highway. They passed a law that basically says if you're platooning, the 500-ft. law does not apply.
Those kinds of following distance laws are based on a couple of factors that are eliminated when you have platooning technology. The first is human reaction time. A trained driver paying attention is still going to take one to about one-and-a-half seconds to react to whatever's happening in front of them. So you have to leave space for that.
And with trucks, there's also brake lag — the time for the air brakes to have flowed air to each wheel end. When you're getting your commercial driver's license, in the commercial driver's handbook, they describe this "stack-up" of reaction time, brake lag and so on, and you have to leave some space for each of these elements.
The third thing is that you don't have immediate knowledge of what that truck in front of you is doing. You see the speed [of the truck] is decreasing, and you could start to react, but you don't know whether to slam on the brakes or gently apply the brakes.
With vehicle-to-vehicle communication, we immediately know that — and those times we do need to slam on the brakes, while those are rare, our system knows that and applies the brakes fully.
So in several ways, we are reducing that potential safe following distance very considerably. That's how we get it down to 30-50 ft.
That being said, the state laws weren't written without platooning in mind. A lot of them were passed 60 years ago when they weren't thinking about a human not driving the truck in any way, and that's why some changes are needed to relax some of those laws.
FO: So for some states, those laws may need some changes. Where will this platooning product be able to be used — what types of roads, specifically?
Switkes: We're initially limiting it to limited access, divided highways. It won't be two-lane roads, so basically that means interstates and major U.S. highways.
For many fleets, that's where they operate anyway, so it's not really a restriction at all. Some of our early customers have told us where they're initially going to deploy, so it'll be certain states.
The reality is you'll see this first where the first trucks are delivered, so it depends on the customers. But in general, the system will be available for use on limited-access, divided highways.
FO: Are truck drivers — and is the motoring public in general — ready for platooning? It may be that your average passenger car driver who hasn't seen two big trucks with 53-ft. trailers traveling so closely together at speed will be a bit spooked at this.
Switkes: We recognize that, and it is something truck drivers do need to experience and get familiar with. And some of the states we've been working with have said they want some prominent markings on the trucks to show the motoring public and law enforcement that these are platooning vehicles and not tailgating vehicles.
So that's important. But we do think that at the same time, it's so visible that it will be pretty quick for the public to see [trucks doing this] and get comfortable with it. Platooning trucks are so visible, they'll sort of propogate their existence to the public very quickly.
Related to that, a question we often get is, "What happens if a passenger car driver might have to cut between trucks?"
That's an area where we're confident that the motoring public will quickly learn that if you have to cut between those trucks, the platooning system will detect you, the rear truck will slow down, and that driver is also alerted so they can take further action if they feel the need.
But the system will separate the trucks. Usually, that passenger car is cutting through the platooning trucks to get to an off-ramp, so it's only there temporarily. And then the truck driver in the rear truck can just push a button to pull back into the platoon and keep on platooning.