Platooning: when automated trucks deliver your goods
As trucks from all over Europe are making their way to the IAA Commercial Vehicles 2018 in Hanover (September 20-27), there’s no better time to talk about platooning. German logistics provider DB Schenker and truck maker MAN are already underway with real-life tests. 2025AD spoke to the person taking the lead.
If you find yourself on the German A9 highway between Munich and Nuremberg these days, you could well witness something peculiar: two trucks traveling in line, unusually close to each other. Inside, the drivers sport caps adorned with electrodes and a rather odd pair of oversized glasses.
What might look funny at first is actually part of a pilot program that has the potential to revolutionize the way goods are delivered around the world. In June, German logistics provider DB Schenker and truck maker MAN started the worldwide first practical trial of platooning: two trucks form an automated convoy with the truck in front controlling acceleration, braking and steering. It’s a technology that promises to increase road safety, reduce mileage and CO2 emissions as well as the driver’s work less stressful.
Considering the expected financial benefits for fleet owners, platooning is one of the most obvious business cases for automated driving. Still, the industry has been somewhat hesitant to adopt it. But a successful trial under real life conditions could open up the door for the technology.
By January 2019, 200 test rides will have taken place along a 145 kilometer (90 mile) stretch of the A9 highway connecting the two DB Schenker branch offices in Nuremberg and Neufahrn near Munich. Each ride starts at one of the branch offices where the two trucks are loaded with goods like machine parts, drinks, car tires or paper. It’s only a few miles until the two trucks reach the feeder road. After around 500 meters (1640 feet) on the highway, the trucks are ready to connect.
The technology relies on car-to-car communication to enable a so-called “electronic drawbar”. Pushing a small blue button in the center console, the driver of the rear truck sends a platooning request which pops up at the display of the front truck’s driver. If he accepts, the process starts as if by magic. The two trucks reduce their gap from the usually required 50 meters (164 feet) to 12 to 15 meters (39 to 49 feet). “We vary the gap to compare the effect on fuel consumption,” project leader Chung Anh Tran explains to 2025AD. With air drag decreasing, DB Schenker hopes to reduce fuel costs by ten percent.
The big unknown: How drivers and machine interact
Once in platooning mode, the rear driver is relieved of all driving tasks. But he must keep his hands at the wheel, ready to resume if necessary. This is where the amusing caps and glasses come into play. The cap is an electroencephalography (EEG) device that measures the drivers’ brain activities. “We want to know how the drivers’ stress levels change when they don’t have to drive per se but still have to stay alert all the time,” explains Tran. The glasses are an eye tracking device: “We can measure if he gets tired or distracted,” says Tran. They can also track the driver’s field of vision – which has implications for the human-machine interface (HMI) of the truck.
Scientists from the Hochschule Fresenius - University of Applied Sciences accompany the drivers to observe them. How do they react, for instance, if a car merges in between the platoon? This happens maybe once or twice every ride,” says Tran – even though rotating beacons are flashing to signal to other highway users that the trucks are in platoon mode. In that case the platoon automatically dissolves, which means the trucks go back to a 50 meter gap. A red light accompanied by an acoustic signal alerts the driver that he has to take over again. The same is true if the truck needs to change lanes due to a construction site. “It’s very interesting for us to see if the drivers undergo some learning process over time.” In the future, this would open up the possibility for the rear driver to handle other tasks or have a rest during the ride – or to possibly replace him altogether. “But this is very unlikely to happen in the near future. We will see drivers in the vehicles for a very long time,” Tran states.
In the trial, only two trucks form a platoon. Technologically, it would be possible to extend the platoon to three or more vehicles. Interestingly enough, Tran considers this a regional issue. “The question is: to what extent do we hamper the free flow of traffic? In Central Europe, the longer the platoon, the more cars will merge between the trucks. However, longer platoons could make sense in regions with long, less traveled roads – like the USA, Scandinavia or Australia.”
Legal framework: Aiming for common standards
For the researchers, the scope of the project must be a dream come true: combining the drivers’ and the vehicles’ data gives them over 100 billion data points to get their teeth into from each test ride. And it’s not only MAN and DB Schenker who are eagerly awaiting the results. “We are getting requests for experience reports from all around the world,” says Tran. After all, the evaluation will offer important implications for several unanswered questions surrounding platooning: question which must be answered if the feature is to reach series maturity – a step MAN envisages for 2020.
Currently, no legal framework exists for platooning. The trials, funded by the Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure (BMVI) with around two million Euros, run under a special permit. Tran is demanding a European solution: “We need to create common standards.” He also adds this to the to-do list of the truck industry. “Trucks need to be able to communicate and connect with those from other fleets if they are to reap the full benefits of platooning.”
So, the big questions are: How does platooning impact the flow of traffic and fuel consumption? Does it increase road safety and relieve the driver? We can expect to see some answers by fall and as Tran says: “We are very curious,”. Well, you’re not the only ones.