Automation in road freight transport – What potential does “platooning” offer?

Automation in road freight transport – What potential does “platooning” offer?

16. April 2021

The progress of automation is already evident in modern vehicles, for example in the form of advanced driver assistance systems that help drivers stay in their lane, maintain their speed or brake in good time. In freight transport, truck platooning is a preliminary stage on the way to autonomous trucks. 

What exactly is platooning?

With platooning, several trucks drive automatically behind a lead vehicle. The trucks are networked via car-to-car communication and exchange data about driving behavior via WLAN. This enables the lead vehicle to transmit its speed, braking reactions and direction of travel to the other trucks. Camera and radar sensors enable the vehicles to react quickly to their surroundings and to hazards. Ideally, this makes it possible for the convoy consisting of several trucks, to require only one driver. Moreover, because the trucks are precisely coordinated, the distance between them can be reduced to 15-21 meters. Under normal circumstances this would be far too little. The aim is to save space and fuel in this way. According to the results of the I-AT (Interregional Automated Transport) project, fuel savings of between 5-15% are possible. 

What are the benefits for the logistics industry? 

In the course of the research project “Automated and Connected Driving (ATLaS)”, the potential of autonomous trucks was investigated. Despite the high level of automation, trucks driving in the platoon are still manned by a driver. However the long-term goal is to make platooning largely autonomous. Results from various deployment scenarios showed that automated driving with drivers would only provide a small benefit to the logistics industry. Only driverless driving would lead to significant time and cost benefits. Although truck convoys help to reduce CO2 emissions by driving more efficiently, it would be much more beneficial from an environmental perspective to shift transport to rail. Automated driving could therefore have the exact opposite effect by shifting back to the road – namely an increase in CO2 emissions. 

Could platooning solve the driver shortage? 

The shortage of drivers has already been a major challenge in the logistics industry for years. Platooning is not yet permitted in real traffic. Nevertheless there is great hope that autonomous trucks will be able to specifically address the driver shortage in the future, but opinions differ here. Self-driving trucks would have the potential to counteract the driver shortage. Nevertheless, autonomous vehicles also involve a high level of investment, which only large companies could probably afford without support. 

Problems with legal framework and data exchange 

Another problem is the legal framework associated with platooning. Just last year, the I-AT (Interregional Automated Transport) project team presented its findings from two studies, pointing to shortcomings in data exchange between vehicles and insufficient legal frameworks. A fully autonomous truck is therefore still a long way off. It is nevertheless conceivable that partial routes will be covered automatically to relieve the driver. So we can still look forward to seeing how automation in road freight transport will develop. 

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