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It was the start of a new era in mobility. Earlier this spring, six convoys of wirelessly connected trucks, linked closely together in sets of two and three, embarked from three different European countries bound for the Port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands.
In each convoy, the trucks were lined up in platoons, one behind the other, connected by technology. It was the first time in Europe that semi-automated vehicles traveled in a platoon across international borders on a public highway.
The goal was to highlight what regulatory and policy obstacles will need to be overcome to make this more sustainable and efficient trucking model the new standard.
“Platooning may be the key to a more sustainable future in freight transportation.”
I followed the European Truck Platooning Challenge closely. After all, platooning may be the key to a more sustainable future in freight transportation.
Platooning, where a truck with a driver leads digitally connected vehicles, is a logical step in an iterative process; more feasible than the complex launch of fully automated delivery trucks, which may fall under more stringent regulation, and when driving alone, do not necessarily provide fuel efficiency benefits.
Widespread platooning will reduce fuel consumption, CO2 emissions and make transportation safer and more cost-effective.
If you look down the road, what we have here is the effective creation of trains, not on tracks, but on roads. You can imagine a situation where sophisticated platoons compete with trains, more sustainably and safely.
That's not to say it will be easy, or happen overnight. In fact, the European experiment shows us that this shift will take collaboration, education and cultural acceptance.
What is platooning?
Platooning uses connected vehicle technology and partial vehicle automation – not to mention simple physics. Two or more tractor-trailers traveling closely set up air flows that help to "push" both trucks forward, cutting the amount of fuel needed by up to 10 percent.
The lead truck, driven by an active driver, is first in line, and the following vehicles, which may be driverless or equipped with a passive driver, react and adapt to changes in its movement.
Software regulates the distance between trucks in order to leverage the full benefit of lower air resistance.
This is an example of what is referred to as the Internet of Things. Physical objects that talk to each other, in this case trucks, using network thinking.This all happens quickly. The last truck knows what the front truck is doing almost instantly; how much engine torque it's applying, how fast it's going, when it brakes and by how much.
Take this one step further: One day autonomous trucks, working on behalf of global freight carriers, will be dispatched by a background system and move loads in a globally optimized way.
Just think about that for a moment. If it sounds far-fetched, consider the leap from mail coaches to the internet.
Thanks to aerodynamics, platooning saves on fuel and lowers carbon dioxide emissions, while at the same time allowing more goods to be carried on every trip, speeding up delivery and cutting down on traffic jams.
Likewise, larger feeders and multiple trucks also reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Platooning is simply better for the planet.
Teamwork in action
Industry and government worked together to make the European Truck Platoon Challenge happen. Trucking companies joined forces.
Volvo Group and Scania's trucks began their journey to the Netherlands from Sweden; Daimler Trucks and MAN Truck & Bus trucks from Germany, and DAF Trucks and IVECO from Belgium.
“ Platooning technology’s sustainability impact is proven. But we haven’t cracked this thing yet. ”
And the governments of Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands all coordinated on the routes and logistics.
Enabling truck platooning and other connected and automated vehicle technologies is high on the EU agenda.
It’s a key initiative of the Netherlands, which now holds the Presidency of the Council of the European Union. (In July, Slovakia will take over the presidency, and the Dutch are preparing the new leadership to continue the mission.
The European challenge is one possible model for future testing and adoption of truck platooning.
It took a village made up of EU member states, road and vehicle authorities, truck manufacturers, logistics companies, knowledge institutions and stakeholder organizations.
United in efforts to improve safety, efficiency and sustainability, they made it happen.
What we’ve learned about platooning
Platooning technology’s sustainability impact is proven. But we haven’t cracked this thing yet. Obstacles abound.
In Europe, even more intensive international cooperation is needed between the European Commission, EU member states and industry and research institutes to resolve legislative standards, liability, privacy and safety benchmarks.
For example, EU member states will need to come to a consensus on minimum following-distance laws. The French, for instance, define a safe driving distance between trucks as 50 meters, while the Germans enforce the driving distance by time – two seconds.
Member states will need to decide how to measure this as well as other standards.
“State and federal regulations still need to catch up to technology.”
The private sector will also need to band together to resolve key differences. Platooning system developers, which include both third party companies and the truck manufacturers themselves, now apply different communication technology systems.
For multi-brand platooning to work, information and communication systems must align.
Although carefully designed for security from the outset, industry players should continue to work together to create advanced sensing platforms, improve the robustness of the wireless connections between the trucks — which will reduce the distance required between trucks – and enhance the security of vehicle-to-vehicle communications to prevent trucks from being hacked.
There are other questions that no one player or government can answer in a vacuum.
What liability issues arise as a result of platooning? How do we ensure safety and privacy? And will the public support these efforts?
In the U.S., industry players are lobbying for states to update or clarify state-based, minimum following-distance rules to account for platooning vehicles, joining the eight states that have proactively approved platooning testing and demonstration.
Similar to EU countries, states need to work together to share model legislation and harmonize rules around platooning, perhaps with federal guidance.
The common use of connected and automated vehicle technology seems inevitable. Some say that between 2020 and 2025 advances in technology will put autonomous vehicles on the road.
But of course, it’s difficult to put a date on that.
State and federal regulations still need to catch up to the technology. Only then can semi-autonomous trucks take to public roadways.
I believe platooning will generate economic growth and vitality.
Will the system be perfect from the start? No. But we can’t get caught in a perfectionist trap. We have to move forward and keep pace with the technology.
Companies that own and operate large fleets of trucks are studying autonomous trucking from many angles. But they can’t do it alone.
Maintaining an open dialogue among all stakeholders, working in concert with competitors and legislators and creating education programs and desirable opportunities for drivers is the best road forward to a cleaner planet.
Cover Photo Credit: Attributed by European Truck Platooning
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