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We've got ourselves a convoy!

It’s notable that a lot of the technology needed for platooning, together with some of the legislative challenges are shared with autonomous road vehicles

Smart times ahead for road freight
Smart times ahead for road freight

In the next few years we’re almost certainly going to see the start of “platooning” on major highways. This is where several vehicles (trucks, cars, vans, etc) are wirelessly linked so that they can follow each other very closely as a sort of virtual road train. The lead vehicle transmits information to the others, including speed, braking (and sometimes steering) commands, while sensors in the following vehicles aid in maintaining a close but variable distance. These are called vehicle-to-vehicle communications (V2V).


Only the driver in the lead vehicle needs to be fully in control at present (hands-off autonomy may come later), while those in following vehicles basically monitor the operation but don’t directly control their own vehicles until they need to leave the platoon (or something breaks the connection).


For truck operators, one of the major interests in the electronic platooning is that the following vehicles uses significantly less fuel, mainly through the slipstreaming effect but also through less acceleration/deceleration compared with manually controlled trucks acting independently. This obviously also has wider environmental benefits, such as reduced emissions and pollution.


Claims for fuel savings vary but 10 per cent is typical and Volvo Trucks claims up to 20 per cent – clearly this will depend on all sorts of variables such as distance between vehicles, but even a real-world saving of a few per cent will interest operators providing that purchase and running costs aren’t sky-high.


Actually, the lead vehicle uses slightly more fuel than if it wasn’t platooning, but this is more than balanced out by the savings of two or more followers. How this will be resolved for platoons with different vehicle owners remains to be seen, though the European Commission’s SARTRE study proposed that smartphone based apps used for finding and joining a platoon could also impose a charge that would be paid in part to the owner of the lead vehicle in compensation.


Eventually platooning may allow drivers in the following (or even leading) vehicles to be in effect on rest breaks, which will have a big impact in territories where drivers’ hours are strictly limited (and may also reduce the need for overnight parking). However, some level of monitoring and alertness may be mandatory in case of data link failures, accidents and so on – it’s hard to imagine any legislators being comfortable with drivers sleeping in their cabins while charging along day and night.


One of the other attractions of platooning is that it works with existing infrastructure. Unlike “smart road” ideas, platooning works without magnetic guides embedded in the road, or roadside monitors. A platoon at its simplest only needs communications between suitably configured vehicles plus existing satnav networks. Platooning may tap into future smart road systems (traffic lights and the like), but it doesn’t need to wait for them to be implemented.


It’s notable that a lot of the technology needed for platooning, together with some of the legislative challenges are shared with autonomous road vehicles. Car and truck manufacturers, as well as interested third parties like Google and Uber, are pouring a lot of investment into self-driving technologies. This will drive prices down and make fitment more attractive.


Apart from “fly-by-wire” computerised basic controls (steering, brakes, engine), the major technology requirements are “telematics”, ie positional sensors (currently a mixture of cameras, lidar, radar and sometimes ultrasonic, coupled to mapping systems (GPS and other types), all linked to some heavy duty on-board computing power and a lot of software to interpret it and decide what to do with millisecond response requirements.


These cannot be retrofitted to existing vehicles. Platooning will only work with new-build vehicles that need provision for it to be built-in, with fly-by-wire as a minimal requirement. To keep costs down, manufacturers may offer “platoon-ready” vehicles that can later be given telematics hardware and software add-ons if the operator wants to actually adopt platooning.


So far, all the public road demonstrations of platooning we know of have used identical trucks or cars from the same manufacturer. That’s not going to be practical in the real world, so there will have to be standards for mixed fleets and preferably “ad hoc” platoons of vehicles from different operators.


So far different truck manufacturers seem to be developing their own systems, but with a view to complying with inter-operability standards as they emerge. International standards bodies working on different aspects of platooning include ETSI (European Telecommunications Standards Institute); SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers); IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers); 3GPP (3rd Generation Partnership Project); and ISO (International Organisation for Standardisation). Most are working on different aspects of V2V and broader data links (V2X or vehicle-to-infrastructure).


For instance, last year Mercedes Benz announced Highway Pilot Connect, a platooning system that has been approved for use on a couple of autobahns in Germany, the A81 between Lake Constance (Bodensee) and Würzburg, and a stretch of the A51 near Düsseldorf. Trial trucks have special displays in each cab, with information and a camera view from the lead vehicle relayed to the followers. The system is aware of other road vehicles and can for instance open up the gap between trucks if cars move in between them, for instance to reach an exit ramp.


TomTom, a Dutch developer best known for satnavs, has its own telematics systems too. It is working with Scania Trucks on a platooning project for Singapore.


Meanwhile NXP Automotive and DAF Trucks have their own project and have announced plans to empower truck platoons to react “30 times faster than humans” in 2017. NXP, DAF Trucks, TNO and Ricardo are all members of the EcoTwin Truck Platooning project. Which is impressive, but again you’d want the same order of reaction times on all truck makes if you’re going to mix them up in a platoon.


In 2009 the European Commission funded a three year project called Satre (“SAfe Road TRains for the Environment,” oh dear), that explored the issues of mixed fleets of trucks and cars. The collaborative project was led by Ricardo, a UK engine and automotive components maker. In 2011 it demonstrated a “mixed” platoon of a truck followed by three cars, though all were Volvos running on Volvo’s private proving road near Gothenburg. It then ran on public roads in Spain.


One other result was the proposal of standard terminology to use with platooning (for instance “Create, Join, Maintain, Leave, and Dissolve“ for users and “Register, Handle Platoon Status, Charge Platoon, and Guide to Platoon“ for administration use.


SARTRE used as a guideline the ISO 26262, a set of standards for safe implementation of vehicle electronics in automobiles. These don’t include automation and truck platooning explicitly, but cover the same sort of issues. The platooning trials also used a wireless networking standard intended for linking vehicles in a moving platoon, with the snappy title ITS-G5/IEEE 802.11p.


Five years after the SARTRE trial things had moved on to the extent that a trial on public roads was permitted last year. As part of its six month presidency of the European Union in 2016, the Netherlands organised the “European Truck Platooning Challenge. Here trucks from six manufacturers, DAF Trucks, Daimler Trucks, Iveco, MAN Truck & Bus, Scania AB and Volvo Trucks, ran on public roads from European cities to the Netherlands. The furthest travelled from Munich (MAN) and Stockholm (Scania). The platoons were of two or three trucks and always from the same manufacturer.


Other trials of platooning are taking place, or about to. In February 2017 Scania announced that it is developing and testing a “comprehensive platooning solution” for Singapore, which is a small territory with a high population but a lack of truck drivers. Platoons of four trucks are to cover distances of ten kilometres on public roads to move containers between various port terminals. The project was commissioned by the Singapore port authority and its ministry of transport.


During the first phase of the project, Scania will trial the technology at its test facility in Södertälje, Sweden, before starting a second phase of live testing in Singapore.


Scania was also the lead partner in Companion, a three year EUR 5.4 million European research project to develop systems for implementing truck platooning technology on roads. This came to an end in August 2016. It was not only concerned with systems for V2V communications in platoons, but in how to plan platoons in the first place. It proposed a network of European hubs. In practice, a “stakeholder” who may be a haulage company, or a customer, issues a “transport demand” to move goods from point A to point Z. If another stakeholder issues a demand that can follow part of the same route (say C to P), then the Companion strategic planning software can organize a platoon of at least two trucks for that shared part of the route. How that would synchronise the join-up to compensate for traffic hold-ups remains to be seen.


Companion took the simplest approach to platooning: it only looks after lateral controls (braking and acceleration), while the drivers are still required to steer (longitudinal controls). Other systems, such as Mercedes’, handle both.


Next year in Germany, truck maker MAN intends to work with logistics company DB Schenker on a partnership to test platooning under “realistic conditions” over an extended period of time. A truck platoon is to travel regularly on the A9 motorway between Munich and Nuremberg from 2018, eventually serving DB Schenker’s facility in Nuremberg.


Both Scania and MAN are part of Volkswagen Truck & Bus. Andreas Renschler, CEO Volkswagen Truck & Bus says: "The pilot projects are key components of more efficient transportation of goods on the road. Platooning is beneficial for the environment, improves the flow of traffic and increases road safety. What we now need is the legislative framework allowing us to introduce platooning on public roads.”


Platooning, together with autonomous vehicles in general, pose very obvious safety challenges to their own drivers, passengers and other road users (indeed to anything even close to a road if the worst happens). Governments are starting to react to the prospect of automated vehicles and how to integrate them into laws, though they seem to be well behind the pace of technology advances.


Most recently at the end of February the UK government introduced a bill (ie a proposed law up for discussion in parliament) covering “Vehicle Technology and Aviation” that in part will make provision for automated and electric vehicles. It doesn’t mention platooning specifically, but automation appears to be a catch-all term.


It proposes that the UK Secretary of State for Transport (ie the department not the person) “must prepare, and keep up to date,” a list of all motor vehicles that potentially can be used on UK public roads, that that are designed or can be adapted “to be capable of safely driving themselves without having to be monitored by an individual.”


It also considers insurance liability and unsurprisingly proposes that the owner of an automated vehicle must carry similar insurance to that for conventional road vehicles. If an automated vehicle causes an accident or damage to other property or persons, then the insured owner will liable for it whether behind the wheel or not.


Insurers will be able to sue the vehicle manufacturer if they consider that the accident is due to a design fault outside the owner/operator’s control, but if “unauthorised modifications” have been made to hardware or software then the manufacturer is probably off the hook. More controversially, it suggests that owners must ensure that any software is the latest version (as with desktop computers, some people may prefer tried and proven to new and unknown updates).


The technical and standardisation issues of platooning will doubtless be solved before long. Manufacturers will then need to work out how to encourage operators to buy it when usage will initially be limited to platoons of their own brand-new vehicles until a critical mass builds up among other users.


Operating long-distance trucks will need some level of international agreement at a time when global politics seems to be tearing up the idea of such co-operation, though encouragingly the EU got an early start on this. Finally, how will other road users interact with platoons and autonomous vehicles in general? We’ll only really find out after a lot more trials, and these will take years.


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