Self-driving trucks: the platooning challenge
Convoys of trucks, the first with a “human” driver, those with an “automatic driver” immediately behind: this is the new project promoted by the European Union's Dutch presidency, followed by projects and tests performed by some of Europe’s premium manufacturers. The aim is to improve safety and reduce consumption. Will it work?
The automotive world as a whole is shocked by the first fatal accident generated by an autonomous driving system: Joshua Brown, on board of a Tesla S in the U.S., will unfortunately go down in history as the first victim of a “self-driving” accident. The reason? According to preliminary reports, the system confused a white trailer with the sky. Despite terrible events like this, however, the path towards autonomous driving seems to be set, as clearly shown by what is happening in the trucking world. After the first trial runs in Germany and the United States, six out of the seven manufacturers (the “seven sisters”) decided to test a new idea: platooning. The first pan-European project for delivery convoys of heavy vehicles in columns: convoys of trucks, the first with a “human” driver, those with an “automatic driver” immediately behind.
The magnificent six
And so - under the impulse of the Netherlands’ EU presidential term - Iveco, Mercedes-Benz, Man, Daf, Scania and Volvo Trucks launched, last April, the European truck platooning challenge. In which six convoys, each with a different starting point, were to meet in Rotterdam. Two Iveco Stralis departed from Brussels and covered about 180 km; two Daf XF 106 left from Westerlo, Belgium (180 km); three Mercedes-Benz Actros 1845 from Stuttgart (650 km); three big-rigs (formed by an articulated truck and a large trailer) pulled by three Scania R410 from Sodertalje (Sweden, 1500 km), three Volvo FH from Gothenburg (1200 km); and finally two Man TGX from Munich (870 km).
Cutting edge technology under human control
High-tech convoys, of course, but each truck, even those trailing behind driven by an “automatic driver”, still had a real driver on board to make sure that everything went smoothly. In fact, even the most advanced automatic systems still need the presence of a human element on board, able to intervene and take control at any time if necessary. The technology required by a platooning system does not differ much from what is already available on the market and can be fitted on any vehicle. Iveco, for example, equipped each truck with a hi-tech remote control platform based on radars, cameras and GPS system, with sophisticated security systems such as CACC (Cooperative adaptive cruise control) and Advanced emergency braking systems, all able to communicate and interact with the other vehicles in a convoy thanks to Wi-Fi technology. The only real novelty is represented by the electric motor mounted on the steering system. Lane changes, however, were performed in most cases with the manual intervention of the driver for safety reasons. As a consequence, all vehicles arrived safely in Rotterdam.
Goodbye safety distance
The safety distance between trucks is quite negligible for vehicles of this size: just 15 meters compared to the usual 50-60, and Daf was even able to bring it down to 10, that’s electronic reaction time for you! All at a cruising speed of 80 km/h. Quite obviously, then, the drivers in the following vehicles see virtually nothing of what happens ahead. To solve this problem, Mercedes, on the way to Rotterdam, supplied them with a tablet connected to a front camera fitted on the convoy’s leading truck.
If the distances between vehicles should, for some reason, increase, or another vehicle should manage to squeeze in the middle of the convoy, no problem: emergency brakes take immediate action, and the driver - a spectator until then - will have to regain control of the vehicle. Actually, there are also other circumstances in which the driver is called upon to regain control of the vehicle, such as, for example, in city traffic.
Pros and cons
Each convoy is at least 48 meters in length, and Scania, with its 32 meter rigs, even got to 126 meters! Not bad, quite a satisfaction for the convoy leader. The advantages of this system are considerable: not only in terms of higher safety, given that still 90% of accidents generated by heavy vehicles are due to human error, but also in terms of fuel consumption, quantified between 5 and 15%, due to the slipstream enjoyed by the following trucks.
Not to mention greater security against theft, robbery and other critical situations, such as recent “attacks" by immigrants in Greece or at Calais, considering that convoys have traditionally proved beneficial in coping with critical situations and emergencies, for example during the difficult 70s in Italy right up to the recent rioting migrants at Calais. All road users can also further benefit from a reduction of road congestion, with heavy-duty vehicles proceeding compactly, thus freeing up space for other vehicles. Of course, much remains to be done: managing the interaction between self-driving vehicles and road infrastructures, for example, especially in cases where a greater safety distance is required; nevertheless, a long phase of traffic law revisions across Europe will be necessary; and if safety is to be considered paramount, an equally long phase of testing will be also necessary. However, the goal is to have the whole system fully operative by 2025. A word of caution: platooning should not, mistakenly, be considered the only effective way to transport goods in the future. Large convoys, in fact, require large amounts of goods, and basically a single client and a single destination, something not always possible on the market, especially in Italy. And this has always been an inhibiting factor for the convoy par excellence, rail transport. In short, we welcome platooning transport systems, as long as they are a part of an ambitious menu and not an indigestible single dish.