To platoon, or to LCV?

by Carroll McCormick

MONTREAL, Que. — As last October’s platooning trials in Blainville, Que. were spinning down (see Truck News, December 2016), I began to wonder what two-truck platoons could offer that long combination vehicles (LCVs) could not.

I reached out to three big LCV users for some perspective. Among their thoughtful replies, a continent-sized question stood out: Why isn’t the potential of the long-established LCV technique being maximized?

I opened each interview with the offer of a trade: I’ll give your fleet higher GVW-per-two-truck platoons, maybe more route freedom and opportunities to link up, possibly a combined 10% fuel saving while platooning (a figure I plucked from the North American Council for Freight Efficiency) in exchange for the 35% fuel savings, lower driver, tractor, insurance, and maintenance costs, but the route, GVW, and other restrictions, of LCVs.

I came away empty handed.

“My general idea between LCV and platooning – I think the better way is to work with LCVs. We only need one truck, not two trucks. If I had a choice between LCVs and platooning, I would prefer LCVs, if the government would authorize us to carry more weight, and benefit from improved engine power and braking. I think LCVs are better than platoons,” says Alain Boutin, director of conformity and risk management, Cascades.

“For sure, when you are finished with your LCV run in Montreal or Toronto, you have to split it. If you have a platoon you don’t have to hire another driver, but with a platoon you have to pay two drivers for the whole trip,” Boutin says. He does note, however, that for maybe half of the loads Cascades transports, the maximum permitted GVW for an LCV is too low. So how about those platoons, then?

“When I received your paper (Truck News, December 2016) I checked with people here, and everyone here told me that they didn’t think that platooning was better than LCVs. Putting more weight on LCVs is better. Everyone here asks, ‘Why use platooning?’” Boutin says.

Regarding my LCV-for-platooning trade offer, Yves Maurais, technical director, asset management, purchasing and conformity, Robert Transport, wasn’t biting.

“Platooning would be a good solution for such a scenario, but the opportunity to use it would be scarce. We also have to consider the cost of the system versus the actual highway fuel savings in day-to-day operations. What would be the ROI? Most of our LCVs are running light cargo in the second trailer (LTL), if not empty.”

Boutin reminds, “With LCVs you save more than 35%, and that is just the fuel.”

Trevor Fridfinnson, chief operating officer, Bison Transport, offers, “The short answer would be that we wouldn’t see it as a straight up trade scenario. We would see it as complementary to LCVs. Incremental. Would it allow a more casual efficiency arrangement, when trailer loads happen to travel together to gain some efficiency?”

As for the predictability of opportunities for platooning, Maurais comments, “We have been using LCVs in Quebec for a very long time. We are used to them and we plan our activities to maximize their use. On the other hand, platooning would be difficult to plan ahead since you have to get two trucks at the same time at the same place going roughly to the same area.”

On quite another tack, Fridfinnson says, “Our focus is first and foremost on the driver. Does it pass the test of safe operating probabilities, increase the quality of life having this available to him, and does it increase productivity? Any technology application has to be positive in its impact on the drivers.”

Fridfinnson, Maurais, and Boutin comment on other issues: hours-of-service: “If a platooning driver is not in direct control of a vehicle, does it change their duty status?” Fridfinnson asks.

Boutin wonders, “If you go with another trucking company, logbooks, for example. One driver can go all the way to Toronto, the other has to stop in Trois-Rivieres. How will that work?”

Highways: “Platooning would use the same corridors as LCVs. I don’t think that platooning will be allowed on single lane highways for safety reasons,” Maurais suspects.

“We can go on the highways and it would be interesting to be able to go on some of the smaller roads (with LCVs),” Boutin says.

Laws: “It would be a big challenge for approvals. You would have to change many, many laws, like tailgating,” Boutin says.

Inter-fleet platooning: “You’d have to be sure the other truck has the equipment. Has the equipment in the other truck been maintained?” Boutin asks.

Safety: “I think it’s all safety-related. Given the weather conditions that we have, running two rigs so close to each other could be problematic. Also, should an incident happen, there would be no room for the rigs to stop safely. There would also be the response time for the second truck,” Maurais offers.

“I think (LCVs are) a safer way to move more cargo,” Boutin says.

Car traffic: “Trucks go slower than cars – 90 km/h. If we had two to three trucks platooning, you would upset drivers. If they want to take exits, they can go between the trucks. I think that is the biggest problem with that,” Boutin says.

Liability insurance: Crickets.

Some will complain that such concerns are nothing more than the usual fretting over the sweaty details that come with technological advances. But Cascades, Robert, and Bison, veteran exploiters of new technologies all, are renown for constantly expanding their comfort zones.

“We view platooning, as well as other vehicle efficiency options that are being actively pursued, as interesting and potentially exciting and needing to be validated. We’ve seen things come and go, some stick, some not truly get off the drawing board. Platooning is very interesting on the drawing board, but is going to have to be demonstrated in the real world,” Fridfinnson explains.

But the most profound issue these fleets raise is why LCVs, a poster child candidate for the KISS (keep it simple, stupid) principle, is nowhere near being fully exploited in North America?

“We are not running LCVs everywhere we want to. Running LCVs in the US would be good for us,” Boutin says.

Bison, which racks up 30 million LCV miles a year, runs primarily across and within the Prairie provinces and has smaller LCV operations in Ontario. While noting that Bison is working a start-up operation in B.C., Fridfinnson says, “Canada is really at pretty close to saturation levels with LCVs. The big opportunity that is still a puzzle to me is why it hasn’t been tapped in the US. For that not to be present is a bit boggling. The pursuit of platooning in the US, it raises a question. It is one that we have put through to jurisdictions and associations in the US. It is a proven technique. It should have a light shone on it when discussing other technologies.”

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