Truck Platooning – How far can it go?

Date: 27, April 2016
Autonomous trucks are quickly gaining attention in road transport, and is predicted by many to become an economic imperative. NLA finds the development positive and creates many new opportunities for developing the road transport industry and use research and innovation for the benefit also of even the smallest operator. But some issues still need resolving. In freight transport, the technology of “Truck Platooning” could seem to solve shortage of driver, cause fewer accidents on roads and increase fuel efficiency. Essentially, truck platooning revolves around various control systems operating the trucks that drive in convoys while connected wirelessly (automated trucking). Though the technology differ from autonomous in that it still requires a driver in each truck, the driver can conduct other tasks meanwhile such as planning, communication etc, offering new opportunities for the constraints of driving and resting times as well.

So where does it stand? On April 6, 2016, the Dutch EU presidency arranged a “Truck Platooning Challenge”, a project that saw six convoys of 2-3 trucks in each platoon drive cross-border through several European countries, eventually arriving in Rotterdam. Many have viewed it as a breakthrough, or a visible hands-on experience so to speak. The project proved the concept’s viability cross-border and received much needed recognition necessary to stimulate concrete talks between member states and the industry. The Dutch EU presidency soon after in mid-April 2016 invited environment and transport ministers for an informal talk on changing regulation to make self-driving transport a reality. This marked for the first time a discussion on self-driving vehicles and measures for implementation on European political level.   

It should be added, that the event also meant that for once there was a positive focus on trucks and road freight transport in the comments and the press coverage. Road transport had become innovative and hi-tech.

Looking at challenges, difficulties are most prominent in the aspect of standardizing regulations across countries to obtain a common framework. This in order to enable self-driving convoys and designing systems enabling communication between different trucks and its manufacturers, commented Erik Jonnaert of ACEA (European Automobile Manufacturers Association) after the platooning event. Looking at more details, Darren Gosbee from Navistar International Corp, the oldest truck manufacturer in the US pointed to platooning as related to that of the cell phone: “It’s only when everyone else has one that other trucks can enter and exit the platoon while on the road”. In other words, more industry stakeholders must commit to grow its scale sufficiently. He also pointed to smaller obstacles such as fail-safe conditions in case the platoons’ gets trouble while on the road. In addition, old truck fleets across the US and Europe needs modernizing to connect a larger number of vehicles to platoons. It is also needed for a system to control potential sudden movements from the lead truck, causing the trucks behind to make the same rapid movements that could see them face potential crash risks. In effect, every single use case must be examined, which will still require time.

So what could seem to be the time perspective here? CEDR (Conference of European Directors of Roads) was one of the organizations that helped host the event in Rotterdam, and has an ambitious but realistic approach. Steve Philips, secretary general of CEDR commented that he expects to see truck platoons routinely in the next few years on designated routes. However, cross border regulations could create a longer time perspective as “regulation on roads in each country is different, and concerns regarding how cars in particular will enter and leave motorway junctions when platoons are going through. Still, he emphasized the advantages we see already are outweighing the costs and patience is needed to allow the technology to grow further.

Thus, it is beyond doubt that truck platooning is a concept that has caught the attention of many relevant stakeholders. The current EU Dutch Presidency has created an ambitious framework for automated trucking, which will see them continue to push for further development on the EU level. Meanwhile, news updates continue to report that truck manufacturers invest in the technology, a cornerstone if the implementation of the technology are to grow bigger.