Late last year, at the IAA Show in Hannover, Germany, Daimler Truck and Bus head Martin Daum sent shockwaves through the trucking industry when he announced that Daimler wasn’t seeing good fuel economy results in platooning trials with new trucks and highly advanced aerodynamic systems. Daum doubled-down on his comments at the CES Show in Las Vegas, earlier this year, formally announcing that Daimler would forgo any future work on truck platooning and instead focus on autonomous vehicle systems.
Like many industry observers, my first thought when I heard these announcements was of Peloton Technology, the Mountain View, California tech company that has staked out a position as one of the premier developers of truck platooning systems. Based on reports of their work – as well as Daimler’s own initial assessments, it should be noted -- truck platooning sounded highly promising as both a fuel economy and a safety technology. I’d even gone so far as to suggest it was for many Americans their first real-world exposure to autonomous trucks.
So, were all of those early results simply wrong? Was truck platooning an initially promising, yet ultimately a disappointing technological dead end?
I wasn’t sure what to think. But I suspected that Peloton Technologies, and it’s CEO Josh Switkes, weren’t going to be quick to wave the white flag when it came to truck platooning.
And I was right.
In late July, Peloton announced its first major tech advancement since Martin Daum’s comments – unveiling its Automated Following platooning system, a Level 4 autonomous system that does not require a driver in a following truck.
But Switkes was also prepared to hit back against Daimler’s anti-platooning announcements. In an interview with me a few days before the Automated Following announcement was made, Switkes reasserted his view that truck platooning can deliver big for fleets on three important fronts: Fuel economy, safety, and freight efficiency.
All three are important. But to me, the efficiency angle platooning promises fleets has been downplayed somewhat over the past couple of years. So, it was nice to hear Switkes reassert that point in our interview. And it’s not a hard point to grasp: In an age where truck drivers are hard to find and projections show ballooning freight volumes coming straight at trucking, using technology to place two (or more) trucks under the control of a single driver would be an unbelievable boost in freight efficiency for fleets. I’m no statistician, so I can’t say with authority that such technology would actually double the productivity of a single driver – but it would definitely bring a dramatic increase.
Why deal with drop-and-hook situations when a couple of drivers coming from different origin points with platoons in tow can simply pull into a yard, electronically “swap” their following tractor-trailers, and start on the return leg back to their base, for example? I doubt the drivers would have to even climb down out of their cabs to complete an operation like that.
Moreover, Switkes pointed out something that I’ve said for quite a while now – that drivers who obtain an endorsement as a qualified single operator in a multi-truck platoon will certainly make more money than drivers without that skill, and be able to pick and choose the routes and schedules that best meet their family and lifestyle choices.
Additionally, if you add the safety and MPG advantages Switkes is also talking about, then platooning as a potential fleet productivity enabler becomes even more promising as an emerging technology.
In the long run, it may turn out that highly aerodynamic trucks simply don’t net the fuel economy boosts that conventional tractor-trailers today do in a platoon situation, as Martin Daum said Daimler engineers have observed.
But, in my opinion, even if fuel savings are negligible or even non-existent, it is still way too early to write platooning off as a dead end technology. There is still a lot of promise inherent in this technology. And, as Josh Switkes made clear last month, Peloton intends to keep pursuing platooning to determine exactly what those benefits are.