Last week there was a flurry of articles about self-driving trucks on British roads, following a government announcement of a feasibility study. Although all the stories referred to self-driving trucks, it’s one step removed from that at this stage, a semi-autonomous technique called platooning.
As the name suggests, this involves creating a ‘platoon’ of trucks traveling together in convoy. A driver remains in control of the lead vehicle, and a driving support system relays their movements to the followers, mirroring the acceleration, braking and maneuvering.
The advantage of platooning is that trucks can travel much closer together if they’re computer controlled. The computer can react much faster than a human driver, and the safe driving distance between vehicles can be reduced. The trucks take up less space on the road, and more importantly they are able to travel in slipstream. The reduced drag saves fuel and therefore money, and lowers carbon emissions from haulage by up to 16%. Exactly what the savings might be depends on how close the vehicles drive to each other. A Scania study found fuel savings of 12% with a 10 metre gap between trucks. Gaps as close as two metres are theoretically possible, and they would save more fuel. At the other end of the range, an American company called Peloton promises combined savings of 7%. So perhaps we should expect something in the range of a 10% improvement.
Platooning has been trialed in the US already. Europe is coordinating a series of trials, hoping to create cross-border convoys across the whole EU within a few years. The news story from last week was a funding announcement from the British government to test the idea in 2018.
Bringing in platooning in any serious way is logistically challenging. For a start, the industry needs to agree standards so that trucks from different manufacturers can work together. Scania, Volvo, Mercedes and a number of others are working on it and have developed systems for their trucks to tail each other. Ideally convoys should be able to form spontaneously, with any brand of truck joining or leading as needed. That’s a little further off, but we can expect to see it in the coming years.
The second big challenge is on the policy side, as governments decide whether or not to support the technology and create a legislative framework for it. The haulage industry is behind the technology because it reduces costs. The wider motoring lobby is more ambivalent, certainly in Britain. It’s easy to make a case for platooning in countries such as the US or Australia, where trucks will be traveling long distances on wide open roads. Britain’s roads are more congested and complicated, and it may not work as well. But that’s the point of trials.
From an environmental perspective, it’s hard to get excited about a technology that makes incremental improvements to a system that is unsustainable at a much more fundamental level. I wouldn’t oppose it, but the haulage industry needs much more radical solutions – electrification, for example. We need to look beyond roads: trucking uses six times more energy than rail freight. Better yet, we should be reducing the amount of stuff we ship in the first place. In the hands of a timid government, technologies like platooning can be an excuse to dodge the more challenging solutions.
Since road transport is what we have, we should test platooning and adopt it if it’s safe and helpful. But we shouldn’t settle for it as the last word on sustainable freight.
A second reason to support platooning is that the technology will reach cars too in the near future. More and more manufacturers are incorporating driving support software and hardware, and cars that can communicate between each other will have multiple advantages. More on that another time.
If you’ll excuse the sentimentality, this video from Peloton Technology neatly shows how platooning could work in the real world, with drivers able to coordinate on the fly.