This is the third and final installment in my series reviewing the important findings and discussions during the 2020 Automated Vehicles Symposium. Established in 2014, this non-profit conference is co-sponsored by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International and the National Academy of Sciences Transportation Research Board. Part One provided an overview and key take-aways for the broader industry. Part Two focused on truck automation discussions for “solo driverless” operations. Here I’ll discuss AVS truck platooning developments. Disclosure: I serve as a volunteer on the AVS Executive Committee and among the companies discussed here, and I am an Advisor to Peloton Technology and Robotic Research.

Platooning Moving Quickly Towards SAE Level 4 Commercialization

A pair of two-hour Breakout Sessions, one focused on truck platooning and the other on solo driverless trucking, were organized and moderated by myself and Andrew Krum, Group Leader, Human Factors & Advanced Systems Testing, at Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. The breakout panel session on truck platooning brought together Alberto Lacaze, CEO of Robotic Research, Matt Hall, VP Business Development & Strategy at Peloton Technology, Çetin Meriçli, CEO of Locomation, Darrel Wilson, President & CEO of Wilson Logistics, and Darran Anderson, Director of Strategy and Innovation at Texas DOT. As moderator of the session, I knew it would be interesting, with three companies actively developing truck platooning (Locomation, Peloton Technology, and Robotic Research), Locomation’s fleet partner Wilson Logistics, and views from a state official where plenty of truck AV testing is going on.

Peloton Technology is the only company known to be bringing SAE Level 1 truck platooning to market; OEMs may be doing so but have recently been silent on the topic. In Level 1 platooning, drivers in all follower platoon trucks are responsible for steering and monitoring the road environment while the brakes and throttle are automated. Matt Hall of Peloton said their Level 1 PlatoonPro system is at a “ready to launch” stage, and he described their ongoing customer trials and shakedown testing during the pre-COVID-19 period, running their Level 1 PlatoonPro system on a 250 mile route in Texas. Two platoons were making this run down and back at night, experiencing very few cut-ins from passenger cars (a concern voiced frequently when truck platooning first came on the scene). Peloton’s website notes that any cut-ins that do occur are safely handled by the trucks, which open up their spacing in a safe manner. Trials in Europe have also found that cut-ins are a relatively infrequent occurrence.

On-road testing of automated follower platooning is underway by both Peloton and Locomation (and probably OEMs as well). The idea here is that the lead truck is driven normally by a truck driver while the follower truck(s) drives in automated mode without the need for a driver, relying on data from the lead truck and on-board sensing. So, the followers are operating at SAE Level 4. Compared to solo driverless trucks which must understand the entire road scene hundreds of meters ahead, an automated follower truck needs only to scan the area immediately ahead. Shortly after AVS adjourned, Locomation finished testing with Wilson Logistics, carrying freight between Oregon and Idaho. Çetin Meriçli noted that there were a variety of grades and curvatures on this 420 mile route, a key aspect in evaluating platoon control algorithms. With his long time in the trucking industry, panelist Darrel Wilson is a believer, stating “Platooning is an opportunity to increase safety and add efficiency. [It is] a premium job for our drivers, providing them a much better schedule. Platooning leads to a higher paying job and improves driver’s opportunity.” Wilson Logistics just announced an agreement to equip 1,120 of their trucks with Locomation’s platooning technology, with initial deliveries in 2022.

Long Awaited Government Field Test Kicks Off

The Federal Highway Administration announced a multi-million-dollar award to the University of California-Berkeley PATH Program to conduct an SAE Level 1 truck platooning Field Operational Test. Over a twelve-month period trucks will accumulate 150,000 miles of operations on Interstate 10 from California to Texas. They will be running four trucks with two- or three-truck platoons and also a control/baseline truck. Even though the private sector has already addressed many of the issues being investigated here (such as fuel economy, operational feasibility, and driver acceptance), this new project has a novel twist: the trucks will be equipped with sensors providing data to assess interactions between platoons and other traffic. State DOT officials have sometimes expressed concerns about this factor, while others who have traveled in platooning demonstrations came away unconcerned. Industry players note that drivers are trained to accommodate the needs of other vehicles in merging and changing lanes. The data collected in this field test will provide data-driven results to help stakeholders better understand how truck platoons interact with their neighbors on the highway.

More Freight Moved Per Driver

Fuel economy improvements have driven early truck platooning development, but now non-highway applications of driverless followers are in the early stages of getting commercial traction, motivated more by driver shortages. Potential markets include forestry, mining, port drayage, and military logistics. These markets may not be large initially but will grow, serving to accelerate the overall space. Darran Anderson said that in Texas, ports, intermodal facilities, and oil fields are looking at automation and platooning to move their goods and equipment.

Keep an eye on the US Department of Defense (DOD). In describing the U.S. Army “optionally manned” Leader-Follower program, Alberto Lacaze said “If the Army can move one third more cargo with the same amount of drivers, these systems will not only pay for themselves, but will also minimize exposure and help the DOD cope with personnel draw downs.” Noting that Robotic Research has delivered about 100 equipped trucks now under test at Army bases, he asserted “It’s not ‘if’ but ‘when,’” adding that the Army has plans for a leader-follower “program of record,” with a major procurement for thousands of leader-follower vehicles coming next year. Once deployed, the Army would operate a “march” of about 10 vehicles, with a driver only in the front truck. The military has even created a new “March Commander” position!

The Long Haul Continues

Commercialization of platooning has not happened as fast as expected a few years ago. Level 1 Platooning was the first to go through the extensive process of working with Tier 1’s and OEMs to integrate with commercial systems—an inescapable factor in getting to market that can be very time consuming. The solo driverless gang are at the early stages of this process with years of work ahead.

The platooning business case remains sound, though, and strengthens substantially with drone followers. At next year’s AVS, maybe an OEM will come out of the shadows to tell us they’re working on driverless followers too. New moves by both the startups and traditional vehicle industry will be interesting to watch.

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