During the last year, the level of activity and funding in truck automation in general has surged while the rest of the Automated Driving Systems (ADS) industry went through somewhat of a “reset.” Last summer I provided a comprehensive article on the state of truck platooning. Since then, even though major media outlets have focused on “solo driverless” trucking, there have been some very interesting developments in platooning. Here I provide an update.
At the Sweden4Platooning (S4P) Closing Conference in Stockholm several early-COVID weeks ago, I provided a deployment perspective on truck platooning in the USA. This gave me a superb opportunity to check in with colleagues there on the prospects for platooning in Europe. Based on those discussions, it appears that Sweden may become the leader in European platooning deployment (more on that later). The event was hosted by the KTH Royal Institute of Technology, a project partner. Over one hundred experts from across Europe had planned to attend, but on the day the conference hall wasn't too full. However, many joined remotely, including several speakers. It seemed odd at the time; now it's the norm.
As a quick review: truck platooning refers to safe close following (drafting) to improve fuel economy (4% for leader, 10% for follower) via “connected braking” between trucks enabled by vehicle-to-vehicle communications (DSRC). Current commercial platooning systems are designed to operate only on multi-lane, divided, limited access highways because that’s where the large number of users are operating.
First generation truck platooning, which has been making steady progress for some time, is poised for commercial launch. For Peloton Technology’s PlatoonPro product, the lead driver drives normally, supported by best-in-class active safety systems. The follow driver steers, monitors the road, and responds as needed to other traffic (for instance, making lane changes to allow traffic to merge onto the highway), but has feet off the pedals. This is an SAE Level 1 system. Drivers make the final call about if and when to platoon, and both drivers must agree to platoon. Both drivers are responsible for the safe operation of their vehicles. While Peloton’s initial system supports two-truck platooning, others in the industry have discussed platoons of three or more trucks. So far this is just talk, no product announcements of this sort have been made by OEMs or startups.
In second generation “automated following” platooning systems, the follow truck operates at SAE Level 4 while the lead truck is driven normally. The follow truck Operational Design Domain is tightly defined, encompassing the lead truck and any activity in the inter-vehicle gap. The lead truck driver is supported by ADAS systems including Forward Collision Avoidance and Mitigation. Fuel savings combine with enhanced driver productivity in the lead truck and labor savings in the follower truck to greatly enhance return-on-investment.
Both the vehicle industry and startups have been active in platooning to date. OEMs Daimler, Volvo, MAN, and Scania have deployed on-road prototypes.Daimler stepped away from first generation platooning last year but I doubt they will ignore the increasing momentum in automated following. Interestingly, Ford Otosan, co-owned by Ford and Koç Holding, stepped into the ring last year. Otosan partnered with AVL to demonstrate a pre-commercial first generation platooning system on a test track in Turkey. Ford Otosan Assistant General Manager Burak Gökçelik noted that “long term we aim to develop SAE-Level 4 autonomous driving features and realize hub-to-hub autonomous highway transportation.”
For first generation Level 1 platooning, Peloton has conducted numerous PlatoonPro customer trials and several are ongoing. As shown in the image, commercial Level 1 platooning is approved in 27 states and counting. Approved states now encompass over 80% of annual U.S. truck freight traffic.
Most OEMs view automated following as the higher productivity “sweet spot” for platooning. Leading activity (at least publicly) comes from startups Peloton Technology and Locomation, developing products intended initially for the U.S. market. They see automated following as an accelerated path to initial Level 4 commercial launch, since the human driver in the lead truck can handle a wide range of complex operating scenarios that might challenge a solo driverless truck. The lead truck driver can also directly interact with law enforcement and first responders if needed.
Being the only company which has announced commercial launch of Level 1 platooning, Peloton is in a unique position. Sales of their first generation system will create a deployed base of platooning across early customers and leadership fleets, who are expected to upgrade to automated following when it becomes available. For their part, Locomation has partnered with Wilson Logistics for pilot testing starting this year, which they say will eventually expand to 62 two-truck convoys running with safety drivers in the driver’s seat. Locomation CEO Çetin Meriçli says full commercialization of Locomation’s technology “is expected to produce an estimated 33% reduction in operating cost per mile, 8% reduction in fuel expense, and remove 41 metric tons of carbon dioxide from the air per tractor annually.”
What about regulations to allow automated following? “Arizona, Texas, and Utah have confirmed to us that automated follower platooning is allowed,” said Amanda Anderson, External Affairs Manager for Peloton Technology, adding that “there are also five other states that we are exploring to confirm allowances under existing law.”
Several large trucking fleets in the U.S. have shown strong interest in platooning. Few are willing to be public about it, as is typical for any new tech offering in this industry. The exception is UPS with a fleet 120,000 vehicles strong. At a BloombergNEF conference in San Francisco earlier this year, Scott Price, their Chief Strategy and Transformation Officer, said “UPS has led our industry in testing autonomous technologies,” noting that they are “testing platooning technologies with Peloton Technology.”
One of the most interesting recent developments is seeing platooning moving beyond just being about long-haul trucking on highways. Here are several examples.
The U.S. Army’s “Big Six” modernization priorities include the Next Generation Combat Vehicle, which will replace current armored vehicles with robotic and “optionally manned” vehicles. They want to use platooning to lessen labor needs for trucked freight, plus reduce exposure of soldiers to hostile action in unsecured corridors. Their “leader-follower” approach might open up gaps between trucks in hostile areas, while tightening the gap in non-hostile areas to gain fuel savings. GM Defense President David Albritton said last year they are developing and testing Leader-Follower technology, indicating they seek to be a major supplier to the military. Meanwhile, the Army funded Robotic Research to develop and deliver a total of 60 leader-follower truck pairs to Ft. Polk, Louisiana last September and Fort Sill, Oklahoma earlier this year for evaluation by the troops.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey sees platooned buses as a way to increase capacity in the Lincoln tunnel, where daily demand for seats exceeds supply for New York City commuters. Last December they announced a $4.8M Demonstration Program for driver-assisted buses with features including shorter following distances. “The technology could potentially increase morning peak-hour bus capacity by up to 30 percent, or approximately 200 more buses carrying 10,000 more passengers during the peak hour on weekday mornings,” according to the announcement. The press release also stated that contracts are to be issued to Robotic Research and the Southwest Research Institute to separately develop systems, with one company chosen for subsequent pilot testing.
French researchers see platooning improving both safety and throughput. An analysis presented at the S4P event by Dr. Bernard Jacob of Gustave Eiffel University (GEU) examined tolling data on French motorways to discover risks with today’s truck drivers. Where the lawful minimum following distance for trucks is 50 meters (at speeds above 50 kph), approximately 10% of trucks were spaced at less than 50 meters, with 2.5% less than 25 meters. The tech on platooning-equipped trucks would ensure safe following distances whether actively platooning or not. Further, throughput and safety interact. Tunnel safety is a huge priority in Europe given tragedies over the years due to fires caused by crashes. Some of the most magnificent tunnels in the world can be found under the Alps, including the 11 kilometer Mont Blanc tunnel at the French-Italian border. On this major European freight route, trucks must follow no closer than 150 meters for increased safety, three times farther than on the open road. This causes massive truck backups at the tunnel entrance with wait times of six hours or more. GEU aims to examine the feasibility of implementing platooning technology on trucks transiting the tunnel, enabling this following distance to be safely reduced. If the allowable following distance is reduced from 150 to 100 meters, throughput could improve by 33%.
FPInnovations is a major Canadian not-for-profit research center, headquartered in Montreal. Under a multi-industry initiative collaboration, they seek to adapt automated following platooning to timber transport on back-country roads. The forest industry suffers from severe driver shortages in moving cut timber to mills. In some ways this is a simpler job: these roads have very little traffic and speeds are significantly lower than highway driving. Beyond this it gets pretty hairy: unpaved roads with one lane in each direction, no lane markings, narrow one-lane bridges, and the possibility of head-on collisions. In the summer there’s dust, in the winter, snow. The scenes in this video say it all. Challenges like this are an engineer’s dream but it is daunting to deploy a commercial system into this environment with a positive return-on-investment. FPInnovations seeks to find overlap with the high-volume highway platooning use case to take advantages of synergies and reduce development cost. Jonathan Lethbridge, Business Development Manager at FPInnovations, said their business assessment to date “demonstrates the potential for important transportation cost savings,” noting that automated follower platooning can play a significant role to help mitigate labor shortages experienced by the forest industry. During 2018-2019, FPInnovations hosted the first-ever truck platooning trials on “resource roads” in snow and rain. Auburn University’s GPS and Vehicle Dynamics Laboratory provided the trucks and conducted the tests, which successfully demonstrated basic feasibility.
We’re Learning More About Platooning in the Real World
In Europe, the view is that inter-brand platooning capability is needed given the predominance of small fleets there which do not have large numbers of a single brand of truck. In 2017, this motivated the Swedish Innovation Agency VINNOVA to launch S4P, bringing together truck makers Scania and Volvo Group to implement a brand inter-operable platooning system.
New data and findings were presented at the S4P event, based on the team successfully demonstrating that trucks from two different manufacturers can reliably exchange data in two- and three-truck platooning configurations. From an engineering perspective, this was fairly straightforward. The platoon-equipped trucks operated as an SAE Level 2 system, with both lateral and longitudinal control automated in the followers. Working with partner DB Schenker, one of the largest road freight carriers in Europe, a two-truck field test occurred in Sweden between Malmo and Linköping, runningfor six months. DB Schenker reported good driver acceptance across the ten drivers participating. A Volvo researcher examining the effectiveness of the human-machine interface found that these drivers, who were familiar with Adaptive Cruise Control, had no problem adapting to platooning. Although user interfaces were slightly different, they could easily switch between platooning systems in the Volvo and Scania trucks. S4P work also included test track testing of automated following but no on-road trials occurred.
The S4P platooning trial was not the first in Europe. The Electronic Drawbar – Digital Innovation (EDDI) project, funded by the German government, brought together MAN Trucks, DB Schenker, and Hochschule Fresenius to collect data during over 35,000 km of platoon driving on Bavarian roads in 2018. In terms of driver factors, high level results presented last year showed that EDDI drivers were highly favorable about driving in platoons. Based on data collected monitoring brain activity and other physiological parameters, researchers found that when it came to monotony or stress there was no difference between follower drivers in platoons versus regular truck driving. However, another question the research community has frequently raised is that of “platooning carry-over,” i.e. will drivers be prone to tail-gating other vehicles shortly after they’ve finished an extended period of platoon driving with short inter-vehicle gaps? After taking time to study the large EDDI dataset in detail, Hochschule Fresenius researchers found what I would call very minor carry-over effects of this sort. This doesn't concern me because truck drivers aren’t just going to “encounter” platooning like we discover some new gizmo in a rental car — they’ll be specially trained and supported by Distance Alert safety technology. Nevertheless, further examination of this question would be useful because the number of drivers/trips in the trial was relatively small.
Trucking in the U.S. and Europe: Different Worlds
Many on both sides of the Atlantic don't realize that speeds, lanes, operations, and fleet sizes differ markedly between Europe and the U.S.
During S4P event panel discussions, many agreed that in Sweden “fuel savings alone” is not enough justification for an initial platooning system, pointing to the need for automated following. Why do they say this? In Europe, trucks are speed limited to 80 kph (50 mph). In the U.S., for the vast majority of highway miles truckers can travel at the same speeds as cars. Aerodynamic drag on trucks goes up with speed, meaning trucks in the U.S. are typically running at higher speeds by 20% or more compared to European operations. This is key — the higher the speed, the greater the platooning fuel economy benefit. That’s not all: because trucks must travel in the rightmost lane in Europe (with temporary exceptions for passing), this limitation in maneuvering further limits fuel savings potential there. On safety, Europe is way ahead of the U.S. Automated Emergency Braking has been required on all new heavy trucks sold in Europe since 2015.
In the U.S. the top ten fleets by size together comprise about 160,000 trucks. The top two fleets, FedEx and UPS, together have over 50,000 trucks. In contrast, the European trucking industry is highly fragmented and most fleets are small. Girteka Logistics, one of Europe’s largest trucking companies, has only 7,000 trucks. With smaller fleets in Europe, it’s more difficult to envision platooning until equipped trucks are ubiquitous. As noted above, this drives the inter-brand push. A DB Schenker perspective provided at the S4P event saw this situation differently. Given their large size, inter-brand platooning is not a top priority. Plus, they’re ready to deploy now — they have specific freight routes where first generation single-brand platooning operations could proceed. It was clear to me that they are interested in deploying Level 1 platooning immediately.
Will the FCC Create a Speed Bump for the U.S.?
In December 2019 the U.S. Federal Communications Commission proposed extensive changes to reduce the seven channel DSRC spectrum allocation for the V2V communications used in platooning. FCC commissioners have made it clear that opening up more spectrum for WiFi is a higher priority. The current allocation supports a huge range of V2X transportation safety and efficiency innovations. USDOT and all 50 State DOTs, plus key industry groups such as the American Trucking Association, basically called for “hands off” — asserting that the DSRC spectrum should remain allocated for transportation safety use only. The comment period on this proposal closed last week, with over 75% of respondents supporting this view. Industry observers expect an FCC decision this summer.
Emerging V2X alternatives to DSRC, including LTE-C-V2X communications, cannot currently support low latency vehicle control applications including platooning or advanced coordinated collision avoidance. Future iterations of advanced C-V2X (5G NR C2X) are expected to do so, but are not yet proven. There are many moving parts in this space and currently no certainty on when advanced C-V2X commercial release will occur; at best it seems to be several years out. If available spectrum is reduced to unworkable levels, experts say platooning systems can evolve to work with new forms of low latency V2V communications. But they expect that new engineering alternatives for V2V likely cannot match the highly reliable and low cost alternative provided by DSRC.
In Europe, where they have had three DSRC channels for several years, the situation is quite different. At the S4P event, Katrin Sjoberg, a Scania expert on V2X, said she expects this will be expanded to five channels by spring 2020.
Any day now, the USDOT Federal Highway Administration is expected to announce one or more teams selected to conduct a Field Operational Test of first generation truck platooning as part of their Platooning Early Deployment Assessment project. Extensive data will be collected to assess impacts on safety, traffic flow, fleet operations, drivers, and infrastructure, among other factors. Trucks are likely to be on the roads sometime next year.
The EU-wide version of S4P for inter-brand platooning is the ENSEMBLE project, which has been running since 2018 and finishes next year. ENSEMBLE is planning a multi-truck platooning demo this fall to show inter-operability across seven truck brands. Close cooperation between S4P and ENSEMBLE will ensure results go forward into the larger European telecommunications domain, where there is significant momentum to set an inter-vehicle data protocol standard for platooning, at least at the EU level. It’s not clear however if or when providers would be required to adhere to the standard.
A European Commission (EC) call for proposals on “Efficient and safe connected and automated heavy commercial vehicles in real logistics operations” closed in April. The EC wants to understand reactions of the public, road authorities, and associated implications for automated trucking. Starting early next year, work within the funded projects may entail solo or automated following driverless trucks. Whatever tech is implemented, equipped vehicles are expected to be on the roads in late 2021.
These are government funded endeavors, out in the public eye. As always with automated driving, the real action is happening behind the scenes in the private sector, with product introduction and customer partnership announcements few and far between for any one company.
What can be concluded from this multiverse of activity? Clearly, platooning development is happening in many forms in many places. Fuel economy improvements are a definitive benefit in the U.S. and countries with similar trucking operations, like Australia. For the longer term the key motivator is the driver shortage, but road capacity, safety improvements, and vehicle efficiency are in play as well.
The European public and EU Member States place a premium on sustainability. Platooning contributes strongly here by reducing energy use and emissions. Even in a zero emission future with electric trucks, platooning still helps by extending range: less wind resistance means longer battery life.
The U.S. spectrum situation urgently needs to clarify, but statements from industry indicate there can be a way forward if the FCC restricts the current spectrum allowance.
During my time in Stockholm I heard talk that a major truck OEM may offer commercial platooning (Level 1 or 2) later this year. If this happens, I’m curious to see where the product would be available: Europe? North America? Globally? The thinking was that “if one OEM introduces Level 1 platooning, the others will follow immediately.” We’ll see. Regardless of how or who, given all this activity I do expect first generation platooning to be on the market within the next year, COVID-19 effects notwithstanding.
In my view we’re only two to three years away from introduction of both automated following platooning and highway solo driverless in some form. Initially, solo driverless will be highly constrained, operating in low numbers in “good weather” U.S. regions. Volumes will rise and steadily expand across more territory as the tech develops to handle challenging weather. Peloton and Locomation see automated following scaling quickly across a much broader geography. As I noted earlier, Peloton aims to convert existing Level 1 platooning customers to automated following when it arrives. For both companies, the added benefits of automated following will be highly attractive in the marketplace. Level 4 solo driverless fleets will be offering services in parallel, seeing plenty of demand due to the anticipated return-on-investment. It's a big market with room for many forms of automation.
As I noted at the start of this article, I can see a scenario where automated following happens in Sweden first. The Swedish government and public value environmental measures even more highly than neighbors to the south, so reducing greenhouse gas emissions via platooning is a winner. Plus, the government has long supported internal industry to advance their competitive edge. From talking to various experts, a next phase would probably require that the specific road segment(s) where automated following would operate be explicitly allowed for such. There’s precedent for this with Einride’s public road operations in Sweden, and I’m told road authorities are open to further allowances. Under existing European rules they could claim an exemption from Type Approval to allow Level 4 operations under circumstances specific to automated following. Such a process would be simpler for Sweden due to their centralized government decision-making, compared to places like Germany where the “federal states” have substantial power. Finally, Sweden has the long remote road freight corridors (including forestry operations) which are a good fit for automated following.
Back in the U.S., states explicitly allowing automated following is a key enabling step towards deployment. It will be important to see this initial small number of states growing, as has been the case for first generation platooning.
I’m especially intrigued about the viability of Level 1 platooning in Europe. Comments by DB Schenker lead me to conclude there is demand, but market size is unknown. In their French tolling data studies, Gustav Eiffel University found that 80 times per day on average, two trucks of the same fleet pass the same toll gate within a minute on one another: a promising figure supporting within-fleet platooning. Along with potential European government moves supporting deployment on automated following, I’m going to be tracking this Level 1 scenario closely.
(Disclosure: I am an advisor to several of the organizations mentioned in this article: Auburn University, Forest Product Innovations, Peloton Technology, and Southwest Research Institute.)