Powerful economic incentives, wi-fi communications technology and American entrepreneurship have all combined to place the commercial trucking industry at the leading edge of the coming driverless vehicle revolution. While the American driving public is not likely to see truly driverless trucks careening down the interstate any time soon, truck platoons are expected to become an increasingly common feature of highway driving within the next few years. This development presents a new set of opportunities and challenges for the trucking industry.
The above video provides a brief overview of truck platooning’s potential benefits and how the technology works
Driver Assistive Truck Platooning (DATP): Commercial Trucking’s Future?
A generation ago, groups of trucks traveling together were known as convoys, which are illegal just about everywhere. Even a single 18-wheeler can be hard to pass under certain traffic conditions, and a group of big trucks can make highway driving difficult or dangerous, especially when it’s necessary to change lanes to reach an exit or avoid a forced merge to another highway. So why is the trucking industry moving toward high-tech truck platoons?
With onboard video cameras, road and obstacle sensors, secure wi-fi communication, and computer-assisted equipment controls, it’s now possible for a lead truck to guide trailing trucks in highway driving through DATP technology, which promises substantial savings in operating costs. Following at distances of 50 feet or less, the trailing vehicles in a truck platoon can save as much as 15 percent in fuel consumption through drag reduction.
Even the lead vehicle benefits from platoon driving, as the “bow wave” generated by the trailing truck effectively pushes the lead truck forward. Meanwhile, the obvious hazards of tailgating 40-ton trucks at highway speeds are neutralized by the “driver assistive” part of the new DATP technology. Acceleration and braking systems in the lead truck automatically communicate via wi-fi with their counterpart systems in the trailing vehicles, so that all platoon trucks speed up and slow down as a unit.
The lead truck thus controls acceleration and braking throughout the platoon –- all the trailing drivers need to do is steer. With diesel fuel expense historically representing the single biggest component of a heavy truck’s operating costs, even fuel savings as low as 5 percent can substantially improve a carrier’s bottom line.
Different configurations of DATP vehicles have been tested successfully in Europe, Japan and the United States, with some of the following distances between trucks as low as 12 feet. MIT researchers found that truck platooning’s aerodynamic advantages increase as additional trucks join the line, with the fuel economy curve starting to flatten at about seven vehicles.
Short following distances between participating trucks are essential to the success of DATP. Keeping the trucks close together not only maximizes the fuel savings, it also protects the continuity of the wi-fi communication that makes truck platooning possible. Additionally, short gaps between trucks will effectively discourage other vehicles from cutting in between them.
Barriers to Deployment of Truck Platoons
Commercial software systems that allow truckers to take full advantage of DATP technology are now available for preorder, with full rollout of the onboard sensor and vehicle-to-vehicle communication systems expected later in 2017. Unfortunately for those hoping to adopt this technology soon, a number of barriers remain.
Most significantly, the traffic laws of most states specifically require a minimum distance of 200 to 500 feet for drivers following heavy trucks. A few states have allowed exemptions for qualified DATP systems, but most states have yet to do so, and a number of states have considered and rejected revisions to current law that would allow high-tech truck platoons. Trucking industry advocates can be expected to maintain pressure on state legislatures and regulators to relax the current legal restrictions, especially as new research continues to emerge in support of truck platooning.
Another barrier is skepticism on the part of some truckers. The extremely short DATP following distances at highway speeds by themselves make many drivers nervous, no matter what the research says. Some truckers are concerned that the vehicle-to-vehicle communication systems will be vulnerable to hacking or hijacking. Others doubt that certain loads, such as tanker trailers with ever-shifting fluid weight, will ever be suitable for DATP. Yet another consideration is the psychological effect of seeing little but a trailer’s back end for hours at a time on a highway that was dull enough to begin with.
The Future of High-Tech Driver Assistive Truck Platooning
Looking ahead to 2030 or 2035, it’s entirely possible that most goods transported on American highways will be carried in DATP groups of three to five vehicles, with a human driver in the lead truck, a human driver in the rear, and nobody at all driving the trucks in between. The lead truck’s communication system will control acceleration, steering and braking for the driverless vehicles. If any of the driverless trucks encounters a mechanical or digital problem, the lead driver will know of it immediately and make sure that the problem truck’s failsafe systems glide it safely to the shoulder.
If this scenario seems far-fetched, keep in mind that the technology that makes this possible already exists. A truck platoon with driverless vehicles will simply be operating at a higher level of automation than current practices permit. Meanwhile, the American Transportation Research Institute has found that 55 percent of its workforce is over 45 years of age today, with a projected shortage of 175,000 qualified truckers nationwide by 2025. Some industry leaders believe that DATP practices will make trucking easier and more attractive for younger workers in search of a career.
With a severe shortage of drivers looming in the next decade, and continuing pressures toward fuel economy and emissions reductions that are likely only to increase, the trucking industry has strong incentives to get as much value as possible out of every driver and every gallon of diesel. Right now, driver assistive truck platooning addresses several industry problems at once while serving as an intermediate stage toward truly driverless truck operation.