Volvo Trucks N.A. partners with FedEx to test platooning vehicles in live conditions
RALEIGH, NC — Volvo Trucks North America drove a long-held secret down North Carolina Highway 540 today.
In the first successful on-highway demonstration of platooning technology between a major truck manufacturer and a transportation company, Volvo and FedEx working closely with the North Carolina Turnpike Authority (NCTA) took three trucks on the road to showcase their advanced driver assisted technology.
Volvo has kept its partnership with FedEx under wraps for about a year, using Volvo VNL 300 day cabs and a Volvo VNL 670 sleeper cab first on closed tracks in South Carolina and then for the last three months on the North Carolina Triangle Expressway — an area designated by the NCTA as a testing place for autonomous vehicles — to adapt its platooning technology developed in Europe for the North American market.
“Traffic’s different here, roads are different here, speeds are different here, so we have to make sure its all working well,” said project manager Franklin Josey.
The testing partnership has involved using regular FedEx vehicles as a control group with the platooning vehicles to measure the fuel savings for the company. Brandis said the fuel savings could be as much as 10%.
The “platoon” consisted of three trained, professional truck drivers in Volvo VNL tractors, each pulling double 28-foot trailers. Through cooperative adaptive cruise control (CACC), a wireless vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication technology, the tractors and trailers remained in constant communication. The tractors and trailers traveled at speeds of up to 62 mph while keeping a time gap of 1.5 seconds, maintaining a closer distance than what is typical for on-highway tractors. Staged and unplanned vehicle cut-ins demonstrated how the technology handles common traffic situations.
Older model Volvo cabs were used in the experiments because Volvo had yet to release its new model VNL cabs when the testing began, but going forward the partnership plans to use the newer VNL line.
Part of the modifications to the cabs included adding antennas to the front of the trucks to facilitate communication between the lead and the following units. In order to get an accurate line of sight, those pieces need to be high up and as far forward as possible. Additional sensors on the bottom of the bumper work with automatic braking technology to allow the trucks to slow down in tandem.
Keith Brandis, vice president of product planning Volvo Trucks North America, says the technology will be tested in stages, but Northern U.S. states and Canada shouldn’t expect to see platooning trucks on the road soon.
Volvo is aiming to perfect the technology in good weather before it takes on the challenges associated with operating during high winds or ice build-up.
If the trucks lose connection at any point — whether due to debris or car cutting in between — the system is designed to automatically slow the vehicle and signal the professional driver to take over. The truck will then try to re-establish a connection when it becomes possible.
While N.C. 540, with it’s fairly stable climate conditions and proximity to Volvo N.A. headquarters, has proven to be a good start to the testing ground, Brandis says the plan is to work with law-makers to expand testing into adjacent states.
Just 10 states in the U.S. allow platooning vehicles to be tested on live highways. Brandis says one of the stumbling blocks to developing the technology are lagging regulations.
Volvo hopes to work with federal regulators in the U.S., as well as state officials not only to ease the path to testing in more places, but to create federal standards for manufacturers working on the technology.
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