The bumper-to-bumper truck traffic coming to a highway near you is not necessarily reckless driving.
On long stretches of highway in the American Southwest, those trucks that look like they are tailgating may be doing anything but. They might just be engaging in platooning — a developing technology that allows semitractor trailers on long hauls to work together to reduce drag and fuel usage and improve vehicle efficiency.
The technology, which creates a radio and data link between the moving trucks to enable them to travel in close proximity, is seen as an important step on the way to fully autonomous vehicles, which are considered several years away.
In the here and now, though, the technology is an important tool to reduce fuel costs and improve shipping efficiency, which are among the reasons New North companies such a Breakthrough Fuel and U.S. Venture have joined the team of companies investing.
“Our focus as a company is on managing the energy it takes to move goods to market,” says Craig Dickman, founder and CEO of Breakthrough Fuel. “We always have an interest in emerging technologies that can reduce those costs for our clients.”
The technology is being developed and tested by the startup firm Peloton Technology (not the bicycle manufacturer), a California company which is partnering with truck fleet management company Omnitracs, based in Texas, to test its technology on U.S. roads this year, with the expectation of full commercial deployment by 2018.
“U.S. Venture is excited to partner with Peloton,” says Chuck Dauk, vice president of business development for U.S. Oil, a division of U.S. Venture. “Its strong management team, technology platform and market position provided an excellent opportunity to invest within the evolving transportation market.”
Essentially, the technology allows the trucks to drive closer to each other to benefit from the same drafting effect that race cars employ. The short distances between the trucks smooths out the airflow, reduces drag and results in engines working more efficiently, using less fuel.
The technology uses radar, video and data links to connect the two trucks and puts the driver in the lead truck in charge of setting the pace and controlling braking for all those in the caravan. Each truck will still have a driver in constant contact with the other and a network operations center.
In tests conducted so far, the savings amounted to 4.5 percent less fuel usage by the lead truck and nearly 10 percent by the trailing truck. For long haul routes, those percentages can lead to significant savings in fuel costs for shippers and their clients, as well as environmental benefits of using less fuel.
Safety features designed into the system automatically break the data links and return braking control to the drivers should other vehicles on the road drive into the gap between the trucks. The company is starting with pairs for its platooning, but the technology would allow for larger platoons, which could amplify the savings even more in an industry with thin profit margins.
“The first application is with platooning, but the vehicle-to-vehicle technology has other applications for traffic control and managing logistics,” Dickman says.
To see a demonstration of the technology, check out the company’s video explanation and demonstrations at peloton-tech.com/multimedia.