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March 24, 2016

The brave new world of platooning

In the demo, three trucks traveled maintaining about 50 feet
 between them to illustrate the safety and convenience
 intrinsic with Daimler Highway Pilot Connect.
Suddenly, it’s all about platooning trucks in the name of fuel efficiency, infrastructure optimization and driver satisfaction.

Volvo has just staged a seminar on the topic. There’s a multi-manufacturer challenge throughout Europe in several weeks. And Daimler Trucks staged a massive media event in Germany showcasing its take on trucking communications with a special emphasis on platooning.

So what is platooning?

It’s not a new concept but one that is enabled by the latest digital technologies. It’s all about jamming vehicles together in a line where they all talk to each other while closing up together to gain fuel efficiency and to increase the capacity of the highway system. It’s most appropriate to trucks since they use a lot of fuel and a lot of highway.

So there are demonstration projects going on in Europe and the United States to show how the technology will look and feel.

To my mind the most effective so far is the recent platooning demo by Daimler. It combines the fuel-saving concept with its already introduced autonomous driving truck technologies, introduced in Europe in 2014 and in the United States in 2015.

That “driverless” truck demonstration by the hi-tech Daimler companies Mercedes-Benz and Freightliner introduced the world to trucks that could guide themselves on the highway, maintaining a set speed and steering themselves to keep in lane while the driver kicked back and enjoyed the scenery.

At the time, a lot of us said, that’s all well and good, but in the end, what does it get us but a more relaxed driver and potentially safer highways.

The answer is: It gets us platooning.

The basic self-driving technology in Daimler’s vocabulary is Highway Pilot. The latest rollout is Highway Pilot Connect, and it’s a truly workable concept that combines the efficiencies of platooning of trucks, and the economy and ecological gains of better economy with the driver lifestyle improvement of a self-driving truck.

The demonstration on the German A52 Autobahn featured three trucks each talking to the others through vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications. Drivers have available platooning buttons on the dash and dash-mounted tablets that relay all the information about the platoon, including a camera view from the lead truck that allows the following drivers to see what is going on ahead of the platoon from a camera in the lead truck.

And while the demo featured three trucks to illustrate the safety and convenience features that are intrinsic with the Daimler Highway Pilot Connect, the platoon may, in the fullness of time, extend to as many as 10 trucks in a line with only about 50 feet between them.

In practice

In practice, a Connect-enabled truck looks out to find other Connect vehicles – and it’s an open, standardized technology, so those other vehicles don’t have to be Daimler products or even the same fleet-owned trucks. When a similarly equipped truck responds, it’s invited to join the platoon.

There’s driver involvement in setting up the platoon, but once established the technology takes over to draw other trucks into the platoon and pretty soon “We’ve got ourselves a convoy.”

The beauty of the Daimler system is that once engaged, all trucks are autonomous, self-driving units, basically connected by electronic drawbars. All driving tasks are taken by the individual trucks while the whole platoon acts in concert. Drivers can kick back in the seat while watching over the controls, in exactly the same way that airline pilots keep watch over their self-guided planes.

There’s a whole lot of technology associated with platooning that allows for other non-connected vehicles cutting into the platoon to, for instance, get to an off-ramp or whatever.

On the Autobahn?

And in the German demonstration, when passing an Autobahn on-ramp, the platoon would stretch out to the mandated minimum vehicle-to-vehicle 160-foot spacing to allow for merging traffic. Then as soon as the intersection was cleared and merging traffic moved out of the platoon, it closed up to realize the average 7 percent fuel savings of the trucks in the line.

So, where we were scratching our heads over the practicality of self-driving trucks previously, it all falls into place when combined with truck-to-truck connectivity.

It’s a brave new world and it’s coming to a freeway near you soon. Much sooner than you might think.