FHWA has been testing truck platooning for nearly six years now, but this particular project has been underway for the last four. The primary goal of FHWA’s platooning research is to see if this technology can increase “highway throughput,” meaning allow more vehicles to use existing roadway capacity. A secondary focus is improving fuel efficiency for platooning trucks, thereby providing motor carriers with a return on investment for adopting and using this technology.
Individuals from FHWA’s Exploratory Advance Research program at the event noted that truck platooning uses vehicle-to-vehicle communications technology so tractor-trailers can follow each other more closely, at about one second apart. Since the platooning test took place on public roads, the tractor-trailers forming the platoon were escorted fore and aft by police officers.
FHWA calls the main technological component of truck platooning Cooperative Adaptive Cruise Control (CACC) technology. CACC adds vehicle-to-vehicle communications to the adaptive cruise control capability now available in new vehicles. This connectivity allows trucks to operate more smoothly as a unit, reducing and controlling the gaps between vehicles. The technology actually can keep tractor-trailers a distance of 0.7 seconds apart but extensive testing with commercial truck drivers found 1.2 seconds to be a more acceptable distance.
FHWA referred to these test trucks as “partially automated” and stressed that the technology that makes platooning possible is meant to supplement, not replace, commercial motor vehicle operators. Yet since the volume of freight moved annually by trucks on America’s roads is expected to more than double over the next 25 years, FHWA is looking to truck platooning to help “dramatically” enhance highway mobility for commercial vehicles; the most commonly used mode for freight shipping, moving 63% of total tonnage transported in the U.S.
“These new technologies have the ability to increase capacity on our highways and make freight transportation more efficient,” noted Brandye Hendrickson, FHWA’s acting administrator, in a statement provided separately from the platooning event. “With innovations like these, we can get more out of the highway system we already have, relieve traffic congestion, and reduce costs to the freight industry.”
Police officers manned several of the traffic lights along the truck platooning test routes to allow the tractor-trailers and their police escorts to complete their demonstration circuits more quickly.
Michael Trentacoste, FHWA's associate administrator for research, development and technology, that ongoing phases of truck platooning testing are focused on assessing the safety performance of the technology and observing how passenger vehicles react to truck platoons. He noted other platooning projects ar working with two-truck platoons, while others involving passenger cars are platooning up to five vehicles.
Brandon Borgna, spokesman for Volvo Trucks North America (VTNA), noted that platooning represents but one of many efforts among both new and established companies in the trucking industry to use technology to curb or even eliminate freight movement inefficiencies. "For many parts of the country, a truck is the only option for moving goods," he explained. "It has to become as efficient as possible."
Collin Mooney, executive director of the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance (CVSA), noted that his group has two committees already exploring how the addition of more technology like platooning systems to commercial trucks will impact roadside inspection protocols. "If you had asked me a year ago how long I thought it would take platooning to become reality, I would've said a decade," he told Fleet Owner. "Now we're possibly looking at months, not years."