Con­voys of semi-au­to­mated trucks are just around the bend

Con­voys of heavy trucks can cut fuel use, emis­sions, and traf­fic “Pla­toon­ing is one of the first steps to­ward au­to­mated driv­ing”

Bloomberg Businessweek (Europe) - - NEWS -

Michael Kropp typ­i­cally spends his days be­hind the wheel of a big, freight-haul­ing truck, nav­i­gat­ing the high-speed curves, of­framps, and stopand-go traf­fic typ­i­cal of Euro­pean high­ways. On a re­cent trip to Rot­ter­dam, he was able to re­lax and take in the sights. Kropp was one of about 30 driv­ers par­tic­i­pat­ing in a test of a new au­to­mated driv­ing tech­nol­ogy called pla­toon­ing, which links trucks via Wi-Fi, GPS, sen­sors, and cam­eras so they can travel semi­au­tonomously be­hind one an­other. The lead­ing rig dic­tates speed and di­rec­tion, while the rest au­to­mat­i­cally steer, ac­cel­er­ate, and brake in a closely spaced con­voy. “It was a lit­tle eerie to hand over part of my role as driver,” says Kropp, a 55-year-old test driver for Daim­ler who pi­loted the sec­ond ve­hi­cle in the car­a­van. “But it was re­ally com­fort­able, es­pe­cially in heavy traf­fic or bor­ing stretches of road.”

Although driver­less cars grab head­lines, it may take decades be­fore truly au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles rule the road. In the mean­time, semi­au­to­mated con­voys can help man­u­fac­tur­ers hone the tech­nol­ogy while cut­ting emis­sions and fuel con­sump­tion, says Anders Kell­ström, who man­aged Volvo’s test run to Rot­ter­dam. “Pla­toon­ing is one of the first steps to­ward au­to­mated driv­ing,” he says. “The tech­nol­ogy is ma­ture.”

Driv­ers will still be needed—by law they’ll have to keep their hands on the wheel. But let­ting the rig do some of the

work will re­sult in less pass­ing, quicker brak­ing, and fuel sav­ings of about 10 per­cent for the fol­low­ing trucks and a smaller gain for the lead ve­hi­cle, ac­cord­ing to Daim­ler. And it will help re­duce con­ges­tion. When a hu­man is at the wheel, a truck in some coun­tries must main­tain a dis­tance of about half a foot­ball field from the ve­hi­cle in front of it to stop safely in an emer­gency. With au­toma­tion, that dis­tance shrinks to about 50 feet. “Traf­fic on the whole will be­come calmer,” says An­dreas Ren­schler, who heads the Sca­nia and MAN truck brands for Volk­swa­gen.

Man­u­fac­tur­ers ex­pect pla­toon­ing to start tak­ing off in 2020. Most trucks made in the past decade have sen­sors that alert driv­ers when they wan­der out of a lane or get too close to the ve­hi­cle ahead of them, re­ly­ing on cam­eras and radar sim­i­lar to those found in high-end Mercedes-Benz and BMW sedans. Adding au­to­mated steer­ing and brak­ing wouldn’t be com­pli­cated, ve­hi­cle mak­ers say. Lori Tavasszy, a lo­gis­tics pro­fes­sor at Delft Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy in the Nether­lands, says half the Euro­pean fleet of big rigs— 750,000 trucks—could be pla­toon-ready by 2025. “The tech­nol­ogy for this is there,” says Erik Jon­naert, sec­re­tary gen­eral of the Euro­pean Au­to­mo­bile Man­u­fac­tur­ers’ As­so­ci­a­tion. “The bot­tle­neck is reg­u­la­tion and how it can be de­ployed com­mer­cially so freight com­pa­nies pick it up.”

In Brus­sels, law­mak­ers are con­sid­er­ing Europewide reg­u­la­tions for things such as the min­i­mum le­gal dis­tance be­tween ve­hi­cles—164 feet in Ger­many, but sim­ply “a safe dis­tance” in the Nether­lands—and adopt­ing stan­dard rules about dis­solv­ing pla­toons at busy high­way junc­tions. On April 14 trans­port min­is­ters, the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion, and in­dus­try rep­re­sen­ta­tives agreed to co­op­er­ate on con­nected and au­to­mated driv­ing, fo­cus­ing on traf­fic rules and mak­ing test­ing eas­ier. Close co­op­er­a­tion “is needed if we want a wide-scale in­tro­duc­tion of pla­toon­ing,” says Har­rie Schip­pers, who heads DAF Trucks, the Euro­pean unit of Pac­car, a man­u­fac­turer based near Seat­tle.

In April’s dry run, six con­voys of two or three trucks each—in­clud­ing Kropp’s—trav­eled to Rot­ter­dam from Swe­den, Ger­many, and Bel­gium. Three Sca­nia trucks cov­ered the long­est dis­tance, start­ing near Stock­holm, cross­ing the 10-mile Ore­sund Bridge and tun­nel to Den­mark, head­ing south to Ger­many and then into the Nether­lands. Each car­a­van in the test com­pleted the jour­ney as a unit, but man­u­fac­tur­ers en­vi­sion con­voys form­ing on an ad hoc ba­sis, with driv­ers fol­low­ing a leader for any­where from a few ex­its to hun­dreds of miles as in­di­vid­ual ve­hi­cles pull off to make de­liv­er­ies or take al­ter­nate routes to their fi­nal des­ti­na­tions. Daim­ler says cars seek­ing to leave the high­way can ef­fec­tively nudge their way into a con­voy: The truck be­hind rec­og­nizes the in­ter­loper and in­creases its dis­tance ac­cord­ingly, then closes the gap once the car ex­its. If a ve­hi­cle pulls out in front of the first truck, the lead driver hits the brakes and the fol­low­ers be­gin to slow al­most im­me­di­ately.

Even though the ini­tia­tive started in Europe, the man­u­fac­tur­ers say pla­toon­ing may be even more rel­e­vant in places with wide-open roads such as Aus­tralia or the western U.S., where dis­tances trav­eled are greater. “The event in Rot­ter­dam re­ally broke the ice,” says Odile Ar­beit de Chal­en­dar, an of­fi­cial of the Con­fer­ence of Euro­pean Di­rec­tors of Roads, who helped set up the April test. “For the first time, we put pla­toons on the road, in real traf­fic, across borders, and long dis­tance.” Elis­a­beth Behrmann

The bot­tom line Man­u­fac­tur­ers say the tech­nol­ogy for con­voys of semi­au­tonomous trucks can lead the way to driver­less ve­hi­cles.

750k Num­ber of trucks that could be pla­toon-ready by 2025 Pla­toon­ing: Two trucks fol­low a lead driver in a semi­au­tonomous con­voy from Stuttgart to Rot­ter­dam

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