Speaking to CarAdvice at the International Driverless Vehicle Summit in Adelaide, Shad Laws, director of advanced development at Peloton Technology, highlighted the similarities between truck platoons and the road trains prevalent on our country highways.
"Already in Australia, there’s a history of road trains, of linking several tractors together for different combinations," Laws said. "But in doing so, it introduces several operational difficulties, right? Road trains are great in remote areas, but then there’s the huge last mile problem of having to stop, decouple everything."
"We can address a lot of the same concerns, but do so in a way that’s far more flexible and, operationally, is better for all folks involved."
Truck platooning involves a series of connected trucks running close to each other – between 12 and 20m in the case of the company we're talking about here – for improved fuel efficiency. Systems like this have been trialled in Europe as part of a Truck Platooning Challenge, which relied on driverless trucks from the likes of Daimler and Scania.
Peloton doesn't use fully automated trucks for its platoons. Instead, it retrofits existing vehicles with the requisite hardware for vehicle connectivity. It only has two trucks in its platoons at the moment, in part to make the technology less threatening to other road users.
"There’s a few key components that make this happen," Laws explained. "One is a direct vehicle-to-vehicle link between the front and the rear trucks... so we can connect the braking capacities of the two trucks."
"The instant the front truck starts to brake, the rear truck can start to brake. There’s a lot of latencies built into the way trucks are done, so if the rear truck waited until they saw the front truck start to slow down, that would be a problem.
"By having this direct link, we can ensure safety at a much smaller gap to improve the fuel economy."
When the two trucks are linked, the rear driver is able to take their feet off the pedals. When the truck in front slows, the rear will automatically follow – like a more advanced, fast-reacting take on the radar-based cruise systems in current vehicles.
Rather than a reaction time of 1.4 seconds, connected trucks can react in just 0.4 seconds.
At the moment, regulation is a large part of the battle for platooning trucks. In the USA, some states mandate a 500ft (152m) minimum follow distance for trucks. Although it isn't always adhered to, it's also prohibitive for a company that wants to have its vehicles running a matter of metres apart.
But the potential benefits for trucking companies are huge, with a promised fuel saving of 10 per cent for the rear truck and 4.5 per cent for the front, so it's unlikely regulations will remain that way for long. Peloton is already allowed to operate in a number of US states, with plans to push nationwide as soon as laws allow.
As for Australia? Shad Laws says the company is looking into our market, which shares a number of similarities with that of the USA.
"The sort of characteristics of freight in the US and Australia do have a lot of similarities," he said, referring to the long distances our truckers cover in remote areas, largely on dual-carriageway highways. "I think these benefits are very similar between the US and Australian markets."
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