Platooning: Get your trucks in line!
Fuel Consumption Conundrums
If you are a haulier, your biggest expense, other than the outlay to buy your vehicles in the first place, is always going to be fuel. Fuel prices can make or break a company, sharp increases can place huge pressures on companies that are already on tight margins in a competitive market, so finding a way to decrease the cash outlay on fuel is always going to be a vital consideration point.
Technology has lent a hand over the years, with fuel consumption being lowered on newer vehicles by a raft of improvements to diesel engines (higher pressure injectors and more efficient turbo’s etc.). Significant progress has also been made with electric trucks via offerings from Tesla and Volvo amongst others, which further reduce reliance on diesel, but it’s very early days and too soon to tell what the cost vs. benefit will be in the long term.
But, there is more that can be done now, with the advent of greater development in autonomous and semi-autonomous driving systems; these can offer greater efficiencies without relying on changes to the powertrains the vehicles use. One of these systems is known as platooning.
What is Platooning?
In short, platooning is using two or more vehicles driving very closely together to provide more efficient aerodynamics, which in turn means that fuel consumption will be lessened in the vehicles behind the first vehicle in the line.
This is achieved by the lead vehicle setting the most efficient speed and the following vehicles using each other to effectively travel in the rear vacuum created behind each of them. This results in the wind/air resistance being significantly lessened.
If you have ever watched professional cycle races, then you would probably have seen team riders lining up inches apart from each other’s wheels, they are in effect using the front rider to lessen the wind resistance for the following riders, meaning they use less energy to propel themselves forward. They will then all take turns to ride at the front, balancing out the energy savings.
That is essentially what is happening during truck platooning, however the means to enable this are somewhat more complicated.
The Science bit!
To effectively manage an efficient platoon, all the vehicles need to be travelling extremely close together. This poses a number of challenges, as trucks are pretty unwieldy and heavy pieces of machinery and even a small collision could cause havoc and a potential chain reaction down the line of vehicles. Not good if you are travelling at 60Mph on a crowded motorway.
There are several systems in development that can be utilised, but I will concentrate on one for brevity. This is called ‘cooperative adaptive cruise control’. In essence, the lead truck travels at a set speed and the following vehicles use a combination of radar, lidar, cameras or ultrasonic sensors to measure the distance between the vehicles and monitor the surrounding area.
The data collected from these sensors is then used to modify the truck’s engine speeds and braking systems to maintain the speed/distance from the vehicle in front. All the vehicles share this information so that all adapt to each other effectively and safely. There is still a driver on board, but when platooning, they are there primarily to engage and monitor the system.
Sounds simple doesn’t it?
Well, there are several issues, but I’m only going to mention 3 now.
1) Public Confidence.
When you are driving, you have (or should have) a large amount of control of the vehicle you are sitting in and expect that your fellow drivers will have the same.
Now, imagine you are travelling at 70mph, surrounded by six 40 Ton trucks that are effectively driving themselves and that are travelling so close together that any contact will cause at least one of them to totally ruin your day...
There will need to some serious PR work undertaken, before the general public will be comfortable with the regular sight of large platoons on busy roads.
2) The Technology itself.
Whilst a lot of the technology for these systems has already been created, there are still some hurdles to overcome. The systems to share the data between vehicles will have to be extremely reliable at transmitting large amounts of complex information. Losing connection between some or all vehicles has serious potential for accidents.
The imminent arrival of 5G networks and architecture will help negate this to a large extent.
3) Actual savings.
Opinions differ as to how much fuel can be saved by platooning, optimistic predictions state that up to 11% or 12% can be saved on a regular basis, but other studies suggest that may be unrealistic and between 4%-5% is more realistic.
Savings are savings, but the cost of the systems themselves won’t be cheap to start with so there will need to a lot of cost/benefit analysis before operators begin spending.
This is a technology that could provide cost savings and also free up space on busy motorways (with trucks being more organised and allowing cars to move more freely); but there are still significant questions to be answered, and issues to overcome in terms of platooning technology and public attitudes towards it.
Written by Julian Maynard - Recruitment Consultant, Shipping and Logistics at Alchemy Recruitment Ltd.