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Alan McKinnon – Professor of Logistics

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LOGISTICS BLOG

Current issues in logistics and transport

Truck platooning – niche or norm?

Truck platooning is currently a hot topic in the road freight sector. Last month’s European Truck Platooning Challenge, organised by the Dutch government, generated a good deal of interest and provided more evidence that the concept is at a high level of ‘technological readiness’. It basically involves connecting several trucks electronically into a convoy, thus reducing the gaps between them from 50-60 metres to 15 metres or less.

This, it is claimed, addresses several of the major problems facing the road haulage industry.

By collectively improving aerodynamics it cuts all the vehicles’ fuel consumption, saving money and reducing emissions of CO2 and other pollutants. Fuel savings as high as 10-20% are being quoted.

It could also help to alleviate the current shortage of truck drivers. Although all the vehicles in a platoon would still have drivers, they could take their rest breaks in the cabs of trucks electronically controlled by the lead vehicle in the platoon. By squeezing vehicles more tightly into motorway lanes, platooning would use road space more intensively thereby easing traffic congestion.

One can quibble about the magnitude of these benefits and the offsetting cost and risk factors but that is not the main focus of this blog.

Having read much of the literature on platooning, I am still not clear how it would work in practice. The trials show ready-formed platoons running smoothly along the road between two points. If this becomes that standard operational model, will we need to establish truck parks at strategic motorway intersections where lorries can congregate as part of a platoon-formation process? This will require land and infrastructural investment. It will also interrupt freight journeys and add costly waiting time to delivery operations. Will the platoons then remain intact until they reach the next staging post or will it be possible for individual vehicles to ‘detach’ from the convoy and leave the motorway at an intervening intersection? If the vehicle in question is in the middle of the platoon how will this decoupling actually work and how will it affect the dynamics of the general traffic flow?

More questions arise about the business aspects of platooning. It is not clear who will manage a platoon, decide which should be the lead vehicle and compensate its operator for taking on this responsibility. To incentivise companies to assume the lead vehicle role there will have to be some transfer of benefit from the operators of the other vehicles in the convoy. What mechanism will be used to redistribute the benefits accruing from fuel and labour cost savings across vehicles in the convoy? This issue won’t arise where all the trucks in a convoy belong to a single company. Research in the US has suggested that the first commercial applications of platooning are likely to be of this type. In most countries this will confine platooning to a very small number of big carriers, those with a sufficient density of trips on particular corridors at particular times to make platooning economically viable. If a corridor was sufficiently long and had the right intermodal connections, the carrier might find it preferable to transfer the convoy to the rail network and transform it into a freight train.

At a later stage in the development of platooning one can envisage alliances of hauliers building convoys on heavily-trafficked corridors using online platforms to synchronise vehicle movements. How far would a truck have to travel along one of these corridors, however, to justify the additional effort, time and cost expended in joining a platoon? As the average tonne of freight moved by road in the UK in a heavy goods vehicle travels only 91 kilometres (57 miles) and much of that distance is not run on motorways, I foresee limited uptake of platooning in this country. While it may remain a niche activity for road hauliers in a small country like the UK, it could well become the norm for long-haul trucking in much larger states.

Posted in Discussion | 2 Comments

2 Responses to Truck platooning – niche or norm?

  1. David Cebon says:

    Excellent commentary Alan, thank you.

    I find the current hype around platooning to be completely baffling! The only significant benefit I can see is that drivers in the ‘following’ vehicles can have a snooze while in the platoon… so the rules on driving hours could be relaxed. The fuel consumption benefits are minor, because the reductions in aerodynamic drag (5-8% at best) only kick-in when the vehicles are very close together… much closer than the 10 m – 15 m spacings in the demonstration trials. On the other hand, the barriers to platooning in practice are substantial, as you point out.

    If the aims are to reduce fuel consumption and traffic congestion, then a far better approach is to use longer vehicles in the first place. This is possible now, using well-proven, safe technologies. It is done in many countries around the world: Scandinavian countries, Netherlands, Spain, Australia, Canada, USA, South Africa, Argentina…

    Two 44t tractor-semitrailer vehicles in a platoon (total mass = 88t) can carry a payload between them of about 58t (29t each). Conversely, one tractor unit can pull the same two semitrailers in an ‘A-double’ configuration with an all-up weight of about 82t, (ie 6t less). It can achieve this with about 20% lower fuel consumption, with one driver instead of two and with significantly less road wear than the two vehicles in the platoon.

    Why spend inordinate amounts of R&D overcoming huge technological barriers, trying to eek-out 5-8% fuel consumption reduction: when you could get 20% lower fuel consumption, today, using well-proven, safe technologies. It doesn’t make any sense!

  2. Stephan Giesler says:

    Hi and thanks for the interesting reads!

    I don’t quite share the scepticism.

    (1) To answer your first and most crucial question, Alan: I expect the association and disassociation to be much more on the fly. I see it more as a swarm logic, so a lorry can join a platoon being on the motorway and leave it as it pleases. So, no need for additional areas on resting areas and no need to be limited to single companies.

    (2) Secondly, you mention the question of compensation: who will compensate the owner of the first truck? At least regarding the supposed higher fuel consumption of the vehicle there seems to be evidence that also the leading vehicle benefits from the other vehicles “pushing” from behind: http://articles.sae.org/11937/

    Regarding David’s comment on the lower fuel consumption due to less air drag: (a) that’s only one factor – another one (b) is the more constant driving, with less acceleration and braking.
    I know that in the current tests, 15m are being tested. However, distances as low as 4 metres are being managed and even tested (see SAE-article above). However, besides fuel consumption, there are other important benefits – which is why I think we’ll see it on the road very soon, even long before Automated Driving or even driverless vehicles are here.

    At 2025AD, we published an infographic that explains what truck platooning is, how it works and what the different benefits are:
    #1 safety
    #2 CO2 emission reduction
    #3 traffic capacity
    #4 convenience

    https://www.2025ad.com/in-the-news/blog/truck-platooning-infographic/

    I’d be happy to receive your feedback on it (and if you like it, feel free to share it 😉

    – Stephan

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© Professor Alan McKinnon 2018

Kuehne Logistics University
Hamburg
Germany

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© Professor Alan McKinnon 2018

 

Kuehne Logistics University
Hamburg
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