8th August 2022

Automated platooning – the future of fleets?

The idea of automation being adopted by the haulage industry has long been considered inevitable when the technology evolves to a sufficient level. But with so many questions about the practicality and risks of unmanned vehicles on the road, truly driverless trucks are likely to remain in the future for many years to come.

Could the rising interest around automated platooning (linking two or more trucks in convoy and using elements of automation to control them from the lead vehicle) bring with it the gradual steps towards reduced fleet management costs and normalising the idea of fully automated road freight?

What is automated platooning?

Platooning allows for multiple trucks to be controlled by a single driver. The lead truck is manually controlled and delivers real-time instructions to the trucks in a convoy behind. The ability to control acceleration and breaking across multiple vehicles means the trucks effectively function as a single vehicle, meaning that just one driver is required.



The concept of platooning is not a new one. In 1927, the ARAMIS project platooned 25 small transit vehicles in a test track and The Prometheus Project in the 1980s and 1990s saw collaboration on intelligent vehicles and road systems. The difference now is that advances in technology make communication much faster and more comprehensive than ever before thanks to GPS, WLAN and other familiar tracking and communication technologies.

Why is it needed?
The haulage industry is facing multiple challenges. As demand for domestic delivery continues to grow due to increased use of online shopping services, meeting these expectations is becoming more difficult due to the rising cost of fuel, delays at borders and a shortage of trained drivers.

In addition, pressure from governments to take steps towards green solutions and net zero bring further difficulties. While these are both important and necessary, when presented alongside the challenge to sustain the demands of today, it can be difficult for many fleet operators to prioritise looking too far into the future.

For many of these challenges, technological advancements seem to offer solutions – driverless or semi-autonomous vehicles can help to ease the fatigue and stress on existing drivers and reduce the pressure on the supply chain caused by the driver shortage. New fuel types can reduce emissions and financial overheads, and AI-based systems can adapt schedules, routes and loading to ensure efficiency.  

By combining elements of these technologies, automated platooning could help the industry to make multiple, incremental steps towards these improvements and avoid the risk of being put in a position where they must take a leap into the unknown with technologies that haven’t been widely implemented on real roads.

How does it work?
In most trials, platoons use a maximum of three trucks, which keep a distance of 15-20 meters apart.

Communication between the vehicles is continuous, which means that there is real-time connection with each truck that is constantly updated with instructions and data around their speed and GPS position. This ensures that, even in an emergency stop situation, the vehicles would not collide.



A major concern with the total automation of vehicles is decision making and ability to react to unexpected events. Automated platooning maintains a human control - an experienced driver will be able to negotiate issues such as bad weather, erratic drivers, poor road surfaces, diversions and delays in the same way as they would today.

Market size

The global truck platooning market is seeing promising signs in terms of growth. In 2021 the market had a value of $63.94 billion. In just two years, an April 2022 report by Precedence Research projected it will have more than doubled, reaching £154.64 billion by 2023. At this rate, the market could reach $2,259.31 billion by the end of the 2020s.

This significant growth is driven by the environmental and safety considerations that the industry is currently grappling with.

Europe is currently the largest regional market, but North America’s willingness to adopt new technology is likely to see that market grow faster than anywhere else in the world.

Benefits

  • Reduce emissions
  • Increase driver safety
  • Improve fuel economy and performance
  • Reduce traffic congestion
  • Lower costs for hauliers

Without the need to consider human reaction times in the vehicles behind the lead truck, stopping distances can be significantly cut down and the vehicles can travel in closer proximity - improving fuel economy and performance due to reduced drag, resulting in lower emissions. One National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) study suggests fuel savings could be as much as 10% in the lead vehicle, 17% on the rear vehicle and up to 13% for the middle vehicle in a three-truck platoon.

McKinsey estimate that the full automation of trucks could result in savings of 45% compared to having each vehicle individually manned. While automated platooning does not go this far, if the initial implementation can demonstrate significant savings, then adoption will become more attractive with the potential of a rapid ROI and long-term financial improvements.



Negatives

• Lack of infrastructure
• Cost of technology and implementation
• Practicalities of travel (maintenance and parking).

As with any new innovations, the first questions that need to be answered are how is it going to be paid for and how will it be implemented? While there are many potential efficiencies and benefits, there remains a significant gap between the concept and widespread implementation - with many regions around the world requiring changes to road safety laws to accommodate automated vehicles on public roads. For those travelling across Europe, routes could be affected by the varying level of legal and technical implementation in each country.

Fleet operators may also have concerns as to the financial cost of implementation - will it require a new fleet or can existing vehicles be modified? Until an industry-wide model is established, there will also be a reluctance to become an early adopter and end up with outdated tech. 

Many of these concerns are reflected in the adoption of any new technology or fuel type, but only time will tell if the benefits outweigh the costs and challenges of implementation in the long term.

What does this mean for drivers?

Combining the benefits of automation with human experience appears to provide the best of both worlds. Drivers will be able to manage larger deliveries, while the automation allows for streamlining of fuel efficiency and space - creating safer roads and fleets producing fewer emissions.
However, there are a lot of driver-related issues still requiring answers before such a dramatic change to road haulage operations can become introduced:

  • Larger deliveries per individual driver could raise concerns around workloads and expectations as more and more is demanded of an individual driver.
  • Drivers would need additional training to understand the revised processes, potentially removing much-needed vehicles from the road for a day or more.
  • When the platoon is on the road there are clearly many benefits, but what happens on arrival at a truck park? Will it be harder for a single driver to park and secure multiple trucks rather than having one per person?
  • Increased responsibility for single drivers managing the security of multiple cabs and cargos.
  • Questions over how the platoon is managed when maintenance is required on one of the vehicles.
  • Concerns over the reduced need for drivers.
Despite impressive progress so far, it is clear that there are a lot of questions still to be answered before automated platooning becomes a common sight on the motorways of the UK.

Read more about the challenges of reducing emissions in our articles:
It is not easy being green
E-highways: the solution for reducing HGV emissions?

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