Truck Platooning Convoys Make First Trip Across Europe, Saving Diesel Fuel

Every tailgating long-distance trucker knows that slip-streaming behind another big rig — a driving skill perfected on NASCAR tracks — can boost the bottom line by saving expensive fuel. 

Now systems developers have not only translated that personal skill into technology that links trucks together into "platooning" convoys, they have also worked relentlessly to improve the software algorithms, enabling drivers to minimize fuel burn, highway congestion and accidents — beyond Richard Petty's intuitive brute force, beyond anything humanly possible.

Several competing technologies were recently showcased during the first European Truck Platooning Challenge. The demonstration had a splashy ending as EU VIPs greeted convoys crossing the finish line in Rotterdam after long trips across Europe. Notably, Scania's three-truck convoy made the longest trip, logging more than 2,000 km to get there from Sweden (read the press release).

It turned out to be a major milestone because, although the trucks all had drivers, each WiFi-linked lead truck completely controlled the braking and acceleration for those following in lock-step behind; and cruise-control kept them optimally slip-streaming 30 and 40 feet apart (too risky for human drivers with slower reaction times), which was the source of the significant fuel savings.

Driver activated

During the Challenge, Daimler, a truck manufacturing heavy-hitter and platooning pioneer, showcased its proprietary Highway Pilot Connect. It's layered on top of a pre-existing semi-autonomous driving system called Highway Pilot, which is already approved for use throughout Germany. 

The system comes with built-in safeguards. The first of many: Before Highway Pilot Connect can be used, it confirms whether the driver is sitting at the wheel by using an embedded seat sensor along with belt-buckle and hands-on-wheel detection.

Another safeguard instructs the system's automated lateral guidance to allow the driver to steer at any time; otherwise. the self-driving mode eases the stress of long, monotonous distances.

Once up to speed on the open road, the driver toggles a dashboard button to activate the Highway Pilot system, which switches from manual to automated driving mode. Then Highway Pilot broadcasts: "Highway Pilot Connect available." Any nearby driver who receives the message can join the platoon by pressing a reciprocating button. Approaching from behind, the second truck links into the lead truck's WiFi system, which instructs it to reduce the following distance to around 15 meters, immediately improving the airflow and mileage.

Daimler says that the shorter distance reduces fuel consumption by 7%, while taking up just half of the usual highway space. 

A trouble-free ride-along

Platooning drivers constantly receive real-time status updates from an 8-inch monitor in the instrument panel, where a map displays route information along with each vehicle's platoon position. All of the linked drivers can monitor oncoming traffic from a camera mounted on the lead truck.

One writer described a recent Daimler tag-along:

...I was in the third and last truck and impressed by the seamless electronic connecting and disconnecting of the three trucks. If traffic demanded, the trucks automatically disengaged and widened the gap to allow merging traffic in.

The kinks have been completely worked out, with the electronic heavy-lifting hidden by the dashboard display. As the writer ironically noted: was pretty dull, really. It's supposed to be dull. Uneventful. Something's gone very wrong if there's any excitement at all.

Onboard telematics make this possible. It uses WLAN standard IEEE 802.11p, which is used only for automotive V2V applications. While the Highway Pilot drives semi-autonomously, with automated lateral and linear control, and is not networked with other vehicles, Highway Pilot Connect communicates to other trucks and the infrastructure with a radio processor and a dual multiband HF transmitter/receiver. 

Daimler says that platoon length isn't limited by the range of the transmission signals, but by the number of vehicles, maxing out at 10.

Platform neutral

After scouring global tech hubs for cutting-edge platooning innovation, the Volvo Group, which owns Volvo Trucks and Mack Trucks, invested in Silicon Valley-based startup Peloton Technology, the leading truck platooning developer in the US.

Unlike Daimler's Highway Pilot Connect, Founder and CEO Josh Switkes sells Peloton as “platform neutral," designed to work with all major North American truck brands and safety systems. He points out that Volvo is an investor but there is no exclusivity.

Switkes has the perfect pedigree for the business. After obtaining a Stanford PhD in mechanical engineering, he worked on self-driving car projects at Volkswagen and Audi, before hatching the idea his own company (watch Peloton's promo).

Peloton’s executive team members all have similar pedigrees: principal scientist Dr. Chris Gerdes, director of the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford; chief innovation officer Dave Lyons, former Tesla director of engineering. 

As VP of cloud engineering, Ex-Yahoo and Oracle executive Chuck Price leads a team in digital mapping. The engineering team includes team members from DARPA, Google, the VW Electronics Research Laboratory, and the Stanford Center for Automotive Research.

40 percent of running costs

The idea for Peloton came to Switkes when he was still working for Volkswagen. He realized there was a big fuel efficiency market after learning that US trucking firms spent $100 billion a year on diesel. 

Doing some quick math, that meant each driver spent between $80,000 and $100,000 a year on fuel alone. And like all supply chain transportation, they eek out thin margins of 2 or 3 percent. So he knew if he could shave two percentage points off the costs, it would double their profits.

Using a business model that has jump-started solar and grid storage companies, Peloton wants to charge a small hardware installation fee and then bill clients by the number of platoon miles they drive. “The beauty of this is that fleets don’t have to put up a lot of capital, and only pay us based on their savings,” says Switkes.

Once enough customers have signed up, Peloton plans to construct a cloud-based network operations center where trucks would broadcast and receive their data. That way, the company could monitor and control platooning, which would ensure it is done only on safe stretches of road and adjust distances between trucks based on weather conditions. It would even dictate that the heavier of the pair of trucks take the lead.

To date, Peloton-assisted trucks have logged more than 15,000 test miles, showcased in highway demonstrations and fleet tests. Switkes expects to begin deploying his technology in large fleets later this year.

Will truck platooning succeed before EV customers adopt autonomous driving?