As all fleet drivers and managers know, congestion is one of the biggest problems that road users face today. Traffic jams are expensive, with delays costing companies money in lost time and fuel wasted by vehicles idling on the road.
However, new technology is about to offer us a solution, in the form of vehicle platooning.
Platooning enables vehicles equipped with the latest driver support and connectivity systems to closely follow one another, communicating with each other about their relative movement.
So, for example, a series of trucks would travel together in a line on a motorway. There’s some debate as to how many trucks is realistic, with Volvo working on the basis of two or three, but Mercedes-Benz suggesting that up to 10 would be possible.
The lead truck would ‘talk’ to those behind, using vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) technology to communicate pictures from a forward-facing camera to show the traffic ahead and wirelessly networking with the other vehicles, so its movements are copied instantaneously.
What this means, in effect, is that trucks can follow each other safely, but at shorter distances, using up less space on the road. So for example, Mercedes-Benz trucks are now being fitted with a system called Highway Pilot Connect, which enable trucks to follow each other just 15m apart, compared to the recommended 53m stopping distance at 50mph. This is because when the lead truck brakes, that information is communicated to the following vehicles in 0.1 seconds.
A human, on seeing the brake lights of a vehicle ahead, would take at least 1.4 seconds to react. A vehicle in a platoon travelling at 50mph will therefore travel just 2.2m before braking if an incident occurs: the distance would be around 30m for a human driver.
More fuel efficient
While safety is assured with platooning technology, the other major benefit is fuel efficiency. Because of the reduced distance between vehicles, air resistance is lowered, so platooning trucks can reduce their fuel consumption – and, as a result, harmful CO2 emissions – by estimates that range from 5% to 20%. The benefits to fleets, for whom fuel is a major element of running costs, is obvious.
But it’s not just fleets that benefit from this innovation. For one thing, if platooning vehicles can also safely reduce the space between them, this will free up more road space for other road users – and it also facilitates better traffic flow, reducing tailbacks in high-volume situations.
The hurdles to platooning
It’s not just trucks that can join a platoon. An EU-funded project to discover the feasibility and benefits of platooning – called Safe Road Trains for the Environment (SARTRE), running from 2009 to 2012 – involved two Volvo trucks followed by three cars, all of which were connected via wireless technology.
But before platooning can become a fixture on our motorways there are a few hurdles to overcome.
The first is the need for the separate vehicle manufacturers to work together to establish common standards, so that their trucks and cars can talk to one another.
The good news is that Erik Jonnaert, secretary general of the ACEA – the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association – has suggested that this should be possible by 2023.
He said: “The technology for platooning with trucks of the same brand is already available today. But clearly customers will need to be able to platoon with trucks of different brands, so our next objective is to introduce multi-brand platooning.”
Over the next four years, manufacturers are aiming to embark on further testing, recruiting logistics operators to examine how platoons operate in real-life situations and develop business cases. At the same time, an EU-funded research project will develop multi-brand platooning technology and standardise communication protocols, so trucks with different badges on their grilles can ‘speak’ to one another.
The other major issue to surmount is that there are a host of legislative and regulatory concerns to overcome.
The Amsterdam Declaration, signed by EU members in April 2016, lays down a series of agreements on the necessary steps for the development of self-driving technology in the EU.
That could take some time, however. The first step has been taken: the 1968 Vienna Convention on Road Traffic was amended in 2016, which means that automated driving technologies that transfer driving tasks to the vehicle are now explicitly allowed in traffic, provided that these technologies conform with United Nations vehicle regulations, or can be overridden or switched off by the driver.
But that’s just the start. European nations also need to create a supportive regulatory framework before platooning is possible across the continent.
“Policymakers… will need to develop new rules, make changes to existing legislation, and harmonise international and EU rules,” the ACEA’s Jonnaert said, adding that governments will also need to offer political support, including incentives such as toll and tax reductions, and CO2 bonuses.
The final obstacle is the acceptance of platooning by other road users: a series of large, imposing trucks, all in a line on a motorway, might feel intimidating to many drivers. They will eventually get used to this innovation – as they did to wearing seatbelts or not drinking and driving – but it will be a gradual cultural change.
There’s little doubt in the minds of transport experts that platooning will offer huge benefits to all road users in the decades to come. Better traffic flow, safer roads, efficiency gains and the lowering of CO2 emissions are all sufficiently worthy goals to ensure that whatever the obstacles confronting this new technology, they can be overcome.
And then we can get on with looking forward to self-driving trucks…