In racing and cycling, it’s called “drafting”—the practice of a car or bike improving its aerodynamics and energy efficiency by slipping behind another car or bike. In the emerging world of autonomous and driver-assisted vehicles, it’s called “platooning” and usually refers to trucks that line up behind one another at close distances to leverage improved aerodynamics.
In platooning, a lead vehicle wirelessly assumes control over the throttle and braking of one, two, or more vehicles following along behind it. In many scenarios, the drivers in a platoon continue to steer their vehicles and can disengage from the convoy at any time, but the first vehicle determines the speed and braking maneuvers of the entire platoon. Because the follower trucks maintain constant communication with the lead vehicle and have synchronized acceleration and braking, platooning trucks can maintain much shorter distances between themselves as they travel.
Platooning, which is based on vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications, has been shown to increase the fuel efficiency of both the lead and following vehicles, saving fleet operators money and reducing carbon dioxide emissions. It’s still early days for platooning technology, and as of July 2019, 20 states have taken action to address vehicle platooning in relation to applicable laws that govern a vehicle’s following distance.
Improved fuel efficiency and safety
Early tests with platooning have already shown the ability to reduce fuel usage. In a pilot project recently sponsored by Germany’s Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure involving a pair of platooning trucks, the fuel savings registered at 3 to 4 percent. One company that makes platooning technology promises fuel savings in the neighborhood of 7 percent. Because fuel costs are generally the most expensive component of commercial truck operating expenses, these efficiency gains can amount to huge dollar savings.
Creating convoys of linked vehicles can also improve road safety. The lead vehicle is equipped with a series of sensors and radar to help detect and respond to road hazards in the distance. Automatic braking systems relieve trailing drivers from the need to react to road events and can significantly reduce crash risks, even between vehicles with short headways, according to a study conducted by the U.S. Federal Highway Administration.
Platooning could also reduce the fatigue of trailing drivers, since responding to road conditions becomes the job of the lead vehicle and the driver-assist technologies, according to a study commissioned by the New York State Department of Transportation. While there’s currently a shortage of qualified truck drivers and few mandated rest periods, driver-assist and V2V technologies could help fill the gap and provide a more consistent level of commercial transport. According to the publication Transport Topics, some platooning companies are further addressing the driver shortage by developing technology to enable driverless trailing vehicles.
The first and last mile
For all its promise, there are still technical hurdles. To date, platooning can work only between vehicles with human operators driving on a highway. Over the next several years, McKinsey expects that the trailing trucks in a platoon will be autonomous, but only between designated highway stops. One trucking company envisions “logistics hubs,” where autonomous trailing vehicles can either be dropped off or picked up by human drivers for “first and last mile” rides. Other solutions could involve remotely piloting a driverless truck until it successfully joins a highway platoon.
Stay tuned for part two of this series, where we’ll explore the regulatory challenges and potential risks of truck platooning.
At Verisk, we’re committed to continuing the conversation around the emergence of AVs and their novel use cases such as platooning and their implications for the insurance industry. ISO is currently considering hosting a roundtable of insurance professionals to discuss issues related to autonomous vehicles and potential insurance implications.