Peloton drives forward with platooning truck tech

by John G. Smith

ORLANDO, Fla. – Peloton Technology continues to promote the value of platooning tractor-trailers, and it’s pushing forward to develop the next generation of equipment.

CEO Josh Switkes announced the plans during the 2019 Automated Vehicle Symposium in Orlando, referring to electronically linked tractor-trailers that would leave trucks at the rear of a platoon to drive without human intervention.

A driver at the lead truck in Peloton’s Automated Following system would still be at the controls, but the truck behind it would rely on Level 4 autonomous technology to steer and maintain the tight following distances that improve aerodynamics and fuel economy.

Drivers in the lead trucks still act as the “world’s best sensors” for the vehicle-to-vehicle systems, Switkes tells Unlike a fully autonomous truck, they know enough to take actions like slowing down when approaching a temporary construction zone or when coming across a sudden downpour. They certainly can identify the risky or erratic behavior of other road users.

“It’s hard for a single automated truck to do. Easy with a driver in there,” he says. “We’ve got this amazing sensor in the form of the driver. Why throw that away?”

The Level 4 system already exists as a prototype, but all the functions are not yet validated.

No timeline has been established for the rollout, although Peloton expects early adopters to include hub-to-hub operations.

It’s a significant leap forward when compared to the company’s Level 1 PlatoonPro system that leaves a driver in the rear truck to steer, even though the system automatically manages following distances by controlling the powertrain and brakes based on the actions of the driver in the lead truck.

Six customers are already in the midst of the Level 1 field trials, delivering average fuel savings of 7%, platooning more than 1,100 km per day with following distances as tight as 55 feet. Tested gross vehicle weights have approached 80,000 lb.

“It allowed us to start putting the system in real commercial operation — hauling freight on customer routes with their trucks — and it allowed us to start to have customer drivers using the system rather than test drivers,” he says.

Safety validations of that system were completed earlier this year, Switkes adds, referring to connected trucks that also leveraged collision mitigation systems. When lead trucks are involved in a hard braking event, the trucks to the rear automatically respond every time.

Peloton has not yet named which fleets have been involved in the tests, although Switkes confirms that the units are running in Texas. In the U.S., 30 states have updated regulations to allow some level of platooning, largely by altering allowable following distances. The technology is fully authorized in 22 jurisdictions.

While a third party is validating the company’s results, those details have yet to be released, he says.

Daimler recently abandoned research into platooning because it found that fuel economy gains were essentially lost because of how often platoons need to break apart and re-establish themselves in real-world traffic.

Switkes admits that announcement raised a lot of questions.

“We put a lot of effort into designing and implementing the system to detect the cut-ins,” Switkes says. “As we deployed, those cut-ins do not happen very often … it’s really making a negligible impact.”

Read: Truck platooning tests in Canada and elsewhere




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