On an Autobahn highway in Germany, I had the opportunity to ride into the future. I was with Daimler Trucks, inside a Mercedes-Benz Actros equipped with the world’s first semi-autonomous platooning system, Highway Pilot Connect.
Highway Pilot, unveiled to the world two years ago and then again in spectacular fashion to the North American trucking industry last year, is Daimler’s autonomous driving platform. It allows, under certain conditions, the truck to drive itself while the operator can take his hands off the wheel, his foot off the pedal and do, well, just about anything other than drive, as long as he remains in the driver’s seat ready to take back control when required.
Highway Pilot Connect takes it to a whole new level, enabling truck platooning and offering significant fuel savings, the more efficient use of limited road space and perhaps most importantly, improved safety. A demonstration of Highway Pilot Connect was the highlight of a two-day global press event hosted by Daimler, the central theme of which was connectivity. Today’s trucks have some 400 sensors on-board and the next step, claims Daimler, is to fully connect the truck with its surrounding environment. This means other vehicles, through vehicle-to-vehicle communications and also surrounding infrastructure, through vehicle-to-infrastructure communications. You can read more about the potential both of these advances bring to the industry in this issue.
Truck platooning is an interesting opportunity and one that’s not entirely futuristic. Trucks travelling in a platoon formation will average fuel savings of 7%, ranging from 2% for the lead truck to 11% for the next in line and 9% for the tail truck. Travelling in a tightly packed formation reduces wind resistance and also makes better use of road space.
While Daimler’s demonstration of a semi-autonomous truck platoon was a world-first, soon after, six European OEMs conducted a fascinating platooning demonstration featuring a dozen trucks that crossed Europe, beginning from three different locations and coming together in Rotterdam, Netherlands. Scania, Volvo, Iveco, Daimler, MAN and VAF took part in the initiative, which was spearheaded by the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment along with the Directorate General Rijkswaterstaat, the Netherlands Vehicle Authority and the Conference of European Directors of Roads.
There’s clearly an appetite among lawmakers in Europe to advance this technology. Here in North America, the future of platooning seems also to be advancing. Volvo has announced that later this year it will conduct on-road platoon testing with the University of California, Berkeley. This is being done separately from Volvo’s partnership with Peloton Technology, which is also developing platooning technology.
Truck platooning, as has been demonstrated, is possible today. But as always the technology itself is advancing at a faster pace than the regulatory framework that our industry must operate within is capable of changing. Will governments in the US and Canada be eager to embrace the opportunities truck platooning bring? Given the environmental impact truck platooning can have through reduced fuel consumption and emissions, the industry should be able to find some allies within government and the environmental movement.