Advancing Industry 4.0: Truck Platooning Takes to the Road

Consider this: Within the first two years of a truck’s life on the road a company might spend as much on fuel as the truck originally cost.

Since the yearly cost of fuel is about $70,000, as reported by the North American Council for Freight Efficiency (NACFE), it shouldn’t be a surprise that the trucking industry is eager for advanced technologies that improve fuel efficiency, especially if they also improve safety.

One technology that offers potential immediate benefits and relatively low barriers to adoption is platooning, where two or more tractor-trailers are electronically tethered in a convoy on the highway, allowing them to travel in a close formation with the help of sensors and software technology.

Elizabeth Hagerman, Ph.D., chief innovation and strategy officer at Conexus Indiana, moderated a panel at the March 2019 Purdue Road Show in Indianapolis that included Greg Shaver, a Purdue University engineering professor; Mike Roeth, executive director of NACFE; and Shad Laws, vice president of advanced development for Peloton, a Silicon Valley-based company that sells platooning technology to trucking companies nationwide.

Laws kicked off the conversation by focusing not only on the fuel savings potential, but also the improved safety platooning technology presents. Peloton has found that the technology, which can trigger brakes in the second truck of the platoon as soon as the first truck breaks, can reduce braking differences and the amount of safe space needed between the trucks. This can reduce cut-ins on the highway and helps to maintain a platoon. Fuel efficiency is improved by way of reduced drag, which particularly helps the second truck in the platoon.

Laws also emphasized that this technology is legal today in much of the country, including Indiana, and that “approved states represent 75 percent of US truck freight traffic.”

Roeth highlighted the savings to the industry. NACFE studied platooning and they were able to replicate the 4 percent fuel-savings claim that Peloton makes about the technology. Roeth added that, “More than 60 percent of trucks on the road today are equipped with the technology needed to platoon.”

There are hurdles, however, to widespread adoption of platooning technology, the panelists cautioned.

“Although in the last two years the appetite for new technology has increased dramatically,” said Roeth. “Trucking is a conservative industry.”

Laws added, “The trucking industry has a long timeline for this technology. First, because of cost. They don’t have the profit margins to be able to implement technology immediately. Second, external public perception affects adoption.” Broader public understanding and awareness must come first.

The panel emphasized that many associate platooning with autonomous vehicles, but that’s not an accurate representation. In fact, the advancement is low on the automation scale, as the current technology is set-up to have drivers in both vehicles.

In addition, the current research and focus is on two-truck platoons vs. some expectations for platoons of multiple trucks. Laws said that dedicated truck lanes in the future may allow for elongated platoons, but clearly that advancement is far off.

For more information about Industry 4.0 advancements or platooning research, please reach out to Elizabeth Hagerman, Ph.D. at ehagerman@conexusindiana.com.

Truck photo credit: Peloton Technology.