Platooning: The 18-Wheeler Version

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TORONTO, ON —  People are forever complaining about how the digital world has robbed them of something or other. Peace. Anonymity. Freedom itself.

I just see possibilities. So I’ve been keen to follow a new kind of connection made possible by the wonders of modern electronics. I mean the Car-To-X technology now for sale – in a simplified form so far – by Mercedes Benz in Germany. Cars only for the moment, but I expect it will reach trucks soon enough, and it will make a sizeable difference in how we go about our driving lives. 

When it’s all together, essentially every vehicle will be wired up so that it can communicate with other cars and trucks on the road, assuming they’re wired too. They’ll be part of a rolling network automatically sharing whatever information – about traffic jams, weather, accidents, you name it – that the various sensors on each vehicle in a given area have gathered. The result will be mass intelligence, and tools like active cruise control will take on new capabilities. We’ll all be smarter. And maybe we’ll enjoy enhanced safety in the process, improved fuel economy too because we’ll have electronic anticipation helping us steer clear of whatever it is that should be avoided.

It’s called vehicle-to-vehicle – or V2V – technology in the U.S., and it just got a huge boost when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently announced that its two-year pilot test of 3,000 cars proved that the transmission of basic data between cars, like speed and position, improves the safety of all vehicles on the road. It seems that V2V communication will become mandatory in consumer vehicles in the U.S. in the near future, but NHTSA offers no timetable. 

Instead it says it will publish a research report on V2V for public comment in the coming weeks. The report will include analysis of research findings in several key areas including technical feasibility, privacy and security, and preliminary estimates on costs and safety benefits. NHTSA will then begin working on a regulatory proposal that would require V2V devices in new vehicles “in a future year”. 

It clearly hopes that carmakers and suppliers will take up the challenge, reasoning that its V2V announcement sends a message to the market that will promote development of the technology and accelerate commercialization.  

DOT research indicates that safety applications using V2V technology can address a large majority of crashes involving two or more vehicles. With safety data such as speed and location flowing from nearby vehicles, cars and trucks can identify risks and provide drivers with warnings to avoid other vehicles in common crash types such as rear-end, lane-change, and intersection altercations. NHTSA says these safety applications have been demonstrated with everyday drivers under both real-world and controlled test conditions.

Safety Applications

The safety applications currently being developed provide warnings to drivers so that they can prevent imminent collisions, but they don’t automatically operate any vehicle systems such as braking or steering. We know that other technologies – active cruise control, active braking – are already with us, so it’s inconceivable that they won’t be linked somehow. NHTSA does say that such technologies are “eventually expected to blend with the V2V technology” but it’s pretty vague on the point. 

In practice, V2V communication can provide the driver with 360-degree situational awareness to address potential crash situations – including, for example, those moments when you need to decide if it’s safe to pass on a two-lane road, make a left turn across the path of oncoming traffic, or when a vehicle approaching at an intersection appears to be on a collision course. In those situations, V2V communications can detect threats hundreds of yards from other vehicles that cannot be seen, often in situations in which on-board sensors alone cannot detect the threat.

Don’t worry, says NHTSA, V2V technology doesn’t involve the exchange or recording of personal information, nor does it track vehicle movements. The information sent between vehicles doesn’t identify them, merely contains basic safety data. In fact, the system as contemplated contains several layers of security and privacy protection to ensure that vehicles can rely on messages sent from other vehicles and that a vehicle or group of vehicles would be identifiable through defined procedures only if there is a need to fix a safety problem.

That’s what NHTSA says but these days none of us have a lot of faith in any government’s ability to resist tracking us and listening to us and generally doing the Big Brother thing. The risk of that is clear, so I’m not sure this aspect of V2V makes me terribly happy. And I won’t take a government’s word for anything at all.

That point aside, I agree with the safety mavens in Washington in that V2V crash avoidance technology has game-changing potential to reduce the number of crashes, injuries, and deaths on our roads significantly. NHTSA acting administrator David Friedman says, “Decades from now, it’s likely we’ll look back at this time period as one in which the historical arc of transportation safety considerably changed for the better, similar to the introduction of standards for seat belts, airbags, and electronic stability control technology.”

Platoon: The 18-Wheeler Version

Another huge benefit of V2V communication? Fuel efficiency.       

Connectivity was the word of the day at a recent Performance Innovation Transport (PIT) conference. Several speakers at the PIT affair suggested that we’re closer to that world of ‘connected’ trucks than you might think. Much closer. But there was more down-to-earth discussion at this affair as well.

Based in Montreal, PIT was formed in 2008. It’s an unbiased, neutral testing organization to help manufacturers evaluate and refine prototypes and to assist fleet managers in selecting the best technologies to reduce costs and environmental impact. PIT works in co-operation with the U.S. SmartWay Transport PartnershipNatural Resources Canada, and Environment Canada (Membership in PIT, by the way, is not outrageously expensive. Fleets pay an annual membership fee based on fleet size, as little as $35 per vehicle. Manufacturers pay to have their products evaluated.)

Among the high-tech V2V gems explored at the PIT conference was “platooning’ of trucks, which is something you’re destined to hear much more about in the near future. Indeed it might be closer to being part of your life than you can imagine.

The concept of platooning was championed by Josh Switkes, president of Peloton Technology in Silicon Valley.

Platooning simply means one truck or tractor-trailer leading another in a ‘close-formation platoon’ with a 36-ft gap between them, the two connected and that gap managed electronically. The result would be substantial fuel-saving and in theory, increased safety. Testing is happening now and Transport Canada likes the idea, so wait for it.

The very name Pelaton (very platoon-ish) comes from bicycle racing; a pelaton is when the racers travel in a tight cluster to cut drag and resistance.

In his prospectus, which will be receiving much more publicity in the months to come, Switkes explains platooning thusly: “We enable pairs of trucks to form close-following platoons on the open road using radar and vehicle-to-vehicle communication to link active safety systems between the trucks, dramatically reducing collision and fuel costs through accident avoidance and drafting. Peloton charges a few cents per linked mile and the savings enable a payback of 3-4months.”

The concept is far from hitting the TransCanada but it’s creating enough buzz around the industry that the associated issues; i.e., logistics planning, driver training, investment costs and HR consequences are all going to have to be addressed sooner or later.

Like the objects in your rear view mirror, the future of V2V trucking is closer than it appears.

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Rolf Lockwood is editor emeritus of Today's Trucking and a regular contributor to

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