Platooning Still Promising for Trucking

Pairing a manned lead vehicle with driverless following vehicles can present a near-term market case for autonomous and semi-autonomous technologies.

Pittsburgh-based Locomation is pursuing platooning as a viable short-term solution to reduce GHG emissions. (Locomation)

There is “no business case” for platooning, or the electronic coupling of two or more trucks in close formation. That was the assessment of Daimler Trucks in 2019 when it decided to pause its years-long platooning development activities. The OEM determined that for U.S. long-distance applications, where conditions were expected to be ideal, the fuel savings were less than stellar and diminished further when the platoon got “disconnected” and trucks had to accelerate to reconnect. Instead, the company turned its full attention to developing highly automated (SAE Level 4) trucks.

The fate of Peloton Technology, a company all-in on platooning but that ceased operations in 2021, is another indicator that perhaps platooning’s promise has faded.

Interestingly, Daimler Trucks North America will have a panelist on an SAE COMVEC 2022  technical session on “Revisiting Platooning and Autonomous Driving for On-Highway Trucks” — presumably to discuss the autonomous-driving portion of the program. A question being asked of the session’s panelists: Do you see widespread adoption of platooning, autonomous driving, or a combination, by 2027?

Answering that question and others will be experts from Virginia Tech, Locomation and McKinsey & Co., along with DTNA. A Pittsburgh, PA-based startup launched in 2018, Locomation is pursuing greenhouse-gas reductions through freight optimization and its Autonomous Relay Convoy (ARC) technology. ARC consists of two trucks and two drivers — the driver of the lead truck acts as the “superior cognitive filter” ahead of the follower truck’s autonomy system.

“Locomation’s technology offers a viable short-term solution to reduce Scope 1 and 3 emissions,” co-founder and CEO Çetin Meriçli said in a recent statement. “It is an immediate pathway to reducing the supply chain’s CO2 footprint and would be a big boost to any shipper’s bottom line.”

Meriçli paints an optimistic picture of platooning’s efficacy. As does a new market summary from Research and Markets, which projects that the global truck platooning market will grow from a value of US$ 1.86 billion in 2021 to around US$ 9.66 billion by 2027. Radar-based adaptive cruise control and collision mitigation systems are helping to spur the growth. North America is the largest market for truck platooning, according to various reports, but Europe is the fastest-growing region.

High costs associated with the adoption and implementation of currently available technology can be a limiting factor to market expansion, and concerns about privacy and cybersecurity also must be addressed. But government initiatives for cleaner vehicles and safer roadways, along with a worsening driver-shortage problem, are significant drivers, particularly for pairing a manned leader vehicle with driverless following vehicles. This scenario demonstrates an “immediate market case” for autonomous and semi-autonomous technologies, according to Sridhar Lakshmanan, a professor at the University of Michigan Dearborn.

A recent collaboration between researchers at UM-Dearborn and Auburn University explored a platoon with three driverless trucks mimicking the driver-operated lead vehicle to maintain a set spacing of 50 m (164 ft). The three-year U.S. Dept. of Energy-funded project showed that substantial fuel savings can be achieved; after 450 hours and 20,000 miles of testing on tracks and public roads in Alabama, Michigan and Quebec, the platoons had averaged 12% better fuel economy.

“Autonomy is a really exciting proposition, but the reality is there isn’t always a clear market case for using autonomous technologies,” Lakshmanan said, noting that a real-world pilot project could follow. “But if you’re a fleet operator running thousands of trucks, the financial savings are very substantial.”

Hmm, sounds like a promising business case. Time will tell.