Truckload carriers and private fleet owners are paying increased attention to truck platooning. In platooning, trucks are connected using direct vehicle to vehicle communication. This allows the rear truck to react nearly simultaneously to the actions of the front truck. By electronically coupling the trucks in this way, the trucks can operate at closer distances. They do this in order to create drafting, which creates fuel savings analogous to what a race car gets when one race car follows another car closely. Peloton claims savings of 7% from platooning – 4.5% for the lead truck, and 10% for the following truck.
Peloton Technology is the leading proponent of the opportunistic model of platooning where trucks find each other on the interstate and initiate a platoon. Peloton is testing two truck platoons. In this system, two truckers affirm that they are ready to platoon via a radio connection. Inside the two trucks, each driver hits a button. A verbal cue indicates the system has authorized the trucks to platoon. Then the follower speeds up, pulling their truck up so it’s tailgating about 70 feet from the leader and the platoon is initiated. The feet of the driver of the trailing truck are not controlling the brakes or the accelerator. But this driver still needs to remain alert and capable of taking over the truck if a problem arises.
In order to make this a reality, when the lead truck applies its brakes or accelerates, the trucks in the platoon must do the same thing nearly simultaneously. There is also fancy math involved. A Class 8 truck carrying 40,000 pounds needs to brake or accelerate harder than a truck carrying 20,000 pounds to exactly match the speed of the truck in front of it. Also, currently the technology does not work well in rain or snow. Tires deteriorate over time; it is quite difficult to predict how they will react in a hard-braking situation. The math is more difficult when different brands of trucks are used. Despite this, Peloton claims their platooning system is interoperable across different brands of trucks.
The Opportunistic Model of Truck Platooning
The US trucking market for truckload (TL) and private fleet is roughly $600 billion in size. In theory, the opportunistic model would apply to most of that spend. That will not be the case. To reach a significant portion of the market, trucks from different fleets would need to be able to find each other, have a mechanism to fairly apportion savings between the lead and the trailing vehicle, and provide optimization to determine when it makes economic sense for a lead vehicle to slow its speed for some extended period of time to let another truck catch up and join the platoon. This means transportation management systems (TMS) would need new functionality and that most fleets would need to use the same networked TMS solution.
Steve Sashihara, president and chief executive of Princeton Consultants, adds that is unlikely that fleets from different companies will team up to form a convoy in the near future. “For autonomous platooning, I am a big fan when all the vehicles and technology in the platoon are made and supported by the same” manufacturer,” he said. “I am more skeptical in scenarios where the autonomous platoon uses mixed manufacturers and/or systems…”
Further, not all manufacturers of trucks are convinced this business model works. Martin Daum, head of Daimler’s Global Truck and Bus business division, said their testing had shown that platooning fuel economy benefits were not “as hoped” for using recent model tractor-trailers with highly advanced aerodynamic systems. They are discontinuing research into this technology. The North American Council for Freight Efficiency (NACFE) reports that in a real-world setting, the fuel savings probably average out close to 4% across two trucks that maintain following distances of 40 to 50 feet. Quite a bit less than what Peloton is promoting.
But research also shows that as trucks become able to follow each other more closely and when more trucks can participate in a platoon, the fuel savings could be higher. Transport Canada says 6% fuel economy gains are realistic using three tractor-trailer platoons.
The Truck Train Model for Platooning
This suggests the opportunistic model for platooning, where trucks discover each other on the highway, may not be the best way to think about this opportunity. Instead of looking at the truckload and private fleet market, truck platooning might be better viewed as a competitor to rail. Rail is an $88 billion market in the US, half a trillion dollars less than the TL/private fleet market.
In rail, bulk commodities are shipped from an origin to a destination. A railroad might pick up 10 carloads of sand from one shipper, and then at the next stop pick up 20 cars of grain, and so forth. In theory, rail is less expensive than truckload. In reality, when the terrible rail service is combined with fines that shippers claim are unfair, arbitrary, and onerous, rail is not nearly the bargain it initially appears to be.
In the truck train model, truck platoons involve multiple trucks that start at the same origin and go to the same destination. Having trucks find and join each other on the interstate is not necessary. But a platoon of trucks still needs to be able to break itself apart to let cars enter and exit the highway and for other reasons as well. A platooning system needs to be able to temporarily disengage itself when cars cut into the platoon and then automatically resume when the car exits the line of trucks.
But this need to break platoons to allow cars to enter and exit a line of trucks means we are not going to see driverless trucks in platoons anytime soon. The savings from driverless trucks would dwarf what can be saved from fuel efficiency gains.
We will see truck platoons in widespread usage far sooner than we will see autonomous vehicles. 17 states permit platooning. An additional eight states now allow limited commercial deployment or testing of platooning technologies.
Despite that, there is clearly more work to be done surrounding both the technology and the deployment model. I’m betting the truck train model will win.