Alberta platooning researchers met the realities of Murphy’s Law

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Anything that can go wrong will go wrong. Nobody knows this better than a trucker. Loads are delayed. Equipment breaks down. Then there’s the traffic. Always the traffic.

It appears the adage extends to trucking-related research as well.

The Alberta Motor Transport Association (AMTA) and University of Alberta partnered on a project to test the human factors associated with cooperative truck platooning systems – the technologies that use electronic handshakes to establish tighter following distances in the name of better fuel economy. Essentially, researchers wanted to compare the fatigue and attentiveness of drivers in the different vehicles.

It’s an admirable topic. Technologies that look great on a drawing board can have unintended consequences when put into human hands. The so-called human-machine interfaces may be the most important connections on a truck. Might the drivers of the trucks at the rear of a platoon lose focus as their vehicle automatically follows its leader?

But even the research behind such technologies can be a challenge.

researchers at work
(Illustration: istock)

The Alberta researchers hoped for 20 truck driver volunteers. Fifteen signed up, and only nine were ultimately included because of accelerated timelines. Where they wanted to collect data over six months, the project was limited to three weeks. And the results were colored by the stresses associated with equipment that is not yet fully commercialized.

That was just the beginning of the troubles.

Six researchers were going to collect the data. One caught Covid and had to work remotely. There were scheduling challenges with another researcher in Calgary.

Ambiotex, the company behind the specially designed T-shirts designed to monitor heart rates, filed for bankruptcy. Alternatives from Movisens didn’t arrive on time. And participating drivers didn’t wear the assigned Fitbits in the days leading up to the study, so there were no sleep records to compare. A coding error even allowed one driver to skip over 25 of the 40 questions on a questionnaire.

Lessons that emerged

But with every cloud, there are silver linings.

Devices used to track eye movements offered data as good as that which would traditionally be collected in a lab. Relatively new electroencephalogram (EEG) devices – used to measure electrical activity in the brain – offered high-quality data as well.

“This study was successful in showing that real-time psychophysiological data could be collected from professional drivers while conducting real-world, on-road trucking operations on a major highway,” the report noted.

In other words, physical responses from those who are testing new technologies can be accurately measured and tracked, rather than relying on things like surveys alone.

It would be easy for critics to roll their eyes at the struggles behind such a report. The initial questions about fatigue and attentiveness were never answered, after all. But the broader demonstration found that platoons could track the road markings in an Alberta winter; driver assist functions were able to offer support for up to 97% of the routes; fuel savings didn’t emerge for the rear trucks because of traffic that cut between the electronically coupled vehicles.

“Real-world studies provide great value that cannot be achieved through simulations and on-track testing,” an AMTA spokesperson noted, when we asked about the project’s outcomes.

And sometimes real-world studies can offer unique teaching moments for the researchers themselves.

They should take heart. As famed inventor Thomas Edison once quipped: “I have not failed 10,000 times. I’ve successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.” Things worked out OK for him.

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John G. Smith is the editorial director of Newcom Media's trucking and supply chain publications -- including Today's Trucking,, TruckTech, Transport Routier, and Road Today. The award-winning journalist has covered the trucking industry since 1995.

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