How Platoons of Smart Trucks Will Save Fuel and Attract Drivers

A California company is teaching semis to play follow the leader.

Apr 14 2017, 5:00pm

There's a paradox occurring in the trucking industry about what automation will mean for its drivers. On the one hand, since the first commercial delivery was made by a fully autonomous truck last October, commentators have opined that one of the most common occupations in the US may disappear. Yet at the same time, the industry is actually undergoing a huge labor shortage, forecast to reach 100,000 fewer drivers than needed by the end of 2017, according to the American Trucking Associations (ATA).

The ATA report's data on recorded and projected driver shortage.

Rather than seeing the path forward as a binary choice between human operators and full automation, one company, Mountain View-based Peloton, is hoping to synthesize the two with a semi-autonomous system that will augment and automate certain aspects of a truck driver's role, while increasing the safety and efficiency of heavy vehicle operation overall.

The company specializes in truck platooning, a technique in which on-board sensors and DSRC communications devices allow trucks heading in the same direction to follow each other in a tight group, syncing speed and braking patterns across the convoy to allow for closer proximity than would be safe with human reflexes. Peloton claims that the fuel efficiency gains amount to 4.5 percent for the lead truck and 10 percent for a following truck, while also functioning like an adaptive cruise control for the rear driver(s).

"If you can take some of the monotony out of driving, or make driving something which is more technology-oriented and modern, you can potentially draw younger people into a profession where right now you're not seeing a lot of them even though it pays well," saidJonny Morris, Peloton's external affairs and public policy lead, in a phone call.

Part of the elegance of Peloton's approach is that the company is connecting the dots between systems which already exist, basing its product around after-market modifications of newer model trucks rather than retrofits of older ones. On a hardware level, technology like Bendix's Wingman handles collision detection and automatic braking, while logistics provided by Omnitracs—a producer of fleet management software and one of Peloton's major investors—will help to match drivers heading in the same direction even if they belong to different fleets.

If the company's promotional video is to be believed, it's a bit like Tinder for truckers:

Given the convenience of the system, I asked Morris whether expansion plans might include a passenger vehicle equivalent somewhere down the line. In response he points out that physics and economics are against it: the aerodynamic design of modern cars means that platooning has less benefit, and fuel economy isn't as crucial as for trucking companies, for whom it can represent around a third of total operating costs, so there's less incentive to spend money improving it.

Peloton has just closed a $60 million funding round, and road tests of trucks fitted with the Peloton system are already taking place in a number of states including California, Texas and Michigan, with more expected later this year. So while the robot truck is not yet upon us, keep your eye out for augmented trucks on the roads now.

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