Follow the leader: Platooning

Posted on: 13 March 2018

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When you start researching a topic like this, an online search for ‘lorry’ yields the kind of results you might expect. It was filled with mentions of crashes, breakdowns and fly-tipping – at least 90% negative. The Heavy Goods Vehicles (HGVs) industry isn’t necessarily known for dramatic innovation, but the ongoing tech revolution isn’t leaving anything untouched, including HGVs. And it might just change their image too.

A potentially revolutionary technique (platooning) is being trialled in various places around the world, trying to make HGV journeys more efficient, safer and increase road capacity. As well as this, Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, unveiled Tesla’s much anticipated fully electric HGV. Big changes could overhaul what we know and what we think we know about haulage.
 

All aboard the platooning land train

Platooning is a method of HGVs travelling much more closely together than they’re able to do safely now. Theoretically, this improves air flow over the vehicles and fuel consumption.

A number of HGVs (testing is typically being carried out with three vehicles) can travel much closer together at speed than they can now – enabled by autonomous driving technology. Significantly, only the lead vehicle will be driven by a driver. The HGVs following the lead vehicle will be autonomous and follow and respond to the lead vehicle’s driver input. This has led to many to refer to platooning as ‘land trains’ – not too far a stretch of the imagination. All well and good, but what are the benefits?

Fuel consumption
 

With HGVs driving much closer together at a constant speed with less braking and acceleration, platooning has the potential to reduce fuel consumption and save money for haulage businesses. By driving closer together, HGVs experience less aerodynamic drag which will further reduce fuel consumption. Platooning also has the potential to be better for the environment as it could reduce C02 emissions output by 10%1.

Capacity
 

With HGVs driving in convoy like this, it effectively optimises the capacity of roads and could prevent congestion and reduce traffic jams, which could help deliver more goods even faster.

Remove human error
 

Another benefit of platooning is similar to a wider, often cited, benefit of driverless technology in general. Removing driver error could dramatically improve safety on roads. The driver in the lead HGV could brake, while the connected technology of the following HGVs could brake simultaneously with zero reaction time, eliminating human error from the equation2.

The rise of platooning

Platooning isn’t a new idea. It can be indirectly traced back to 1939 and American futurist Norman Bel Geddes. He first postulated the idea of a smart road network. He even built a small scale road with magnetic rails built in to guide vehicles along ‘autonomously’. There have been many iterations, technology partnerships and countries involved since then3.

It wasn’t until 2010 however, that the Safe Road Trains for the Environment (SARTRE) project was the first of its kind to develop strategies and technology to make platoons viable on public roads, while bringing environmental and safety benefits. Run in partnership with the European Commission, this project was the first to demonstrate a platooning system on public roads in Spain. The proof of concept showed a clear benefit, the vehicles in the platoon measured 20% fuel savings3.
 

Drawbacks to platooning

Despite the long development cycle, as with driverless cars, there are still many unknowns with a platooning system. Some motorists are concerned about platooning lorries making it difficult to join a motorway from a slip road4. Potentially, a much larger portion of road is taken up by HGVs driving closely together – leaving little room for another motorist to safely enter a motorway.

HGV drivers may feel their jobs are threatened by this disruptive technology. 70% of the cost to send something using an HGV is paying for the driver5. If you could theoretically send three or four loads in one platoon and only pay one driver – companies could save much of the cost of sending goods.

It’s not clear yet where platooning will and won’t be allowed. For example, platooning is being tested in Nevada in the United States. Nevada is a state containing hundreds of miles of quiet, nearly straight motorway. These conditions are proving to be a good test bed for the technology. Imagining a platoon driving down the M25 at rush hour seems almost unfathomable in the near future. Similarly, will a land train be able to navigate our tricky country lanes? Only time will tell.

While these systems could prove to be safer, if something were to happen, the resulting accident could be much worse. Imagine a platoon formed of a number of HGVs all crashing into one another at speed like a freight train under-weight.
 

Tesla’s lorry and how it fits in

Tesla unveiled its latest disruptive vehicle late last year – a ground-breaking fully electric articulated lorry. Due to go into production in 2019, it has a laundry list of very impressive statistics to make this a serious contender to revolutionise the haulage industry.

  • 500 miles on a charge
  • 0–60mph in 20 seconds (while pulling 36,287kgs). It’s been claimed it can do 0–60mph in 5 seconds without cargo
  • It can travel 65mph uphill
  • The driver’s seat is in the centre of the cab, like a McLaren F1
  • A million-mile guarantee from Tesla
  • Claimed to cost $1.26 a mile to run, 20% cheaper than the $1.51 per mile for a diesel lorry6.

Although Tesla has had many production issues since its inception and has frequently missed their own targets, their lorry can’t be underestimated. The likes of PepsiCo have already reserved 100, joining Budweiser and Walmart who have already placed reservations7. And if Tesla can fix their charging infrastructure and production issues, their HGV could be a game changer and revolutionise the world of haulage.

As with other disruptive transport technology seen over recent years, like driverless cars, hyperloop and drone-taxis (being tested in Dubai), it’s very difficult to navigate from a risk perspective. Only recently have Thatcham and a group of UK insurers agreed on the ten key features to classify a vehicle as truly autonomous. New insurance solutions will need to be thought up, then created to accommodate the new technology. This is made even more difficult when insurance doesn’t exist yet because the technology involved is in its infancy. Only once the risks have been completely understood can adequate cover be implemented.

The technology for platooning is being developed in parallel with the race to develop self-driving cars. Platooning and the advent of electric HGVs have the potential to seriously disrupt a technologically stagnant industry. One company developing a workable platooning system has said that 2018 is the year it’ll be commercially put into practice, following a 1,000-mile test completed in Florida recently8. The technology advances with each passing year and the different firms working on the technology have started to share knowledge and experience around this intelligent system. Platooning might become a common phenomenon on highway roads.