In platooning, trucks are digitally networked and travel close together in a semi-automated convoy. Reduced fuel consumption is just one of many benefits.

On the A9 highway between Munich and Nuremberg they are practically an everyday sight: trucks following each other at short distances, lined up like a string of pearls. Logistics company DB Schenker and commercial vehicle manufacturer MAN recently signed a cooperation agreement to test convoy driving in real traffic situations.

It’s called “platooning.” Platooning in the context of freight trucks means not only driving in convoys but also digitally networking the convoy vehicles to enable semi-automated travel with the smallest possible distance separating them. Less than 15 meters separate bumper to bumper. “The slipstream created by the lead vehicle can thus be fully exploited,” says MAN spokesman Manuel Hiermeyer. Reduced drag behind the lead vehicle in platooning can decrease convoy fuel consumption by up to 10 percent, with CO2 emissions also being correspondingly reduced.

Platooning improves traffic safety

Manufacturers such as MAN and Daimler see a promising future for platooning. In 2016, the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association (ACEA) initiated the largest organized convoy driving event to date, the European Truck Platooning Challenge. The list of participants for the rally to Rotterdam in the spring of 2016 was like a who’s who of the trucking industry. To demonstrate what is possible in international freight transport, MAN had to obtain a special permit for this stretch, with Volvo and Scania doing the same. With the exception of Daimler, another participant in the event, no manufacturer has yet received authorization for its semi-automated freight trucks to use roads on a regular basis. For the participants, their first experience traveling in a convoy was amazing. “Driving in the last truck for the first time and then relinquishing all control over the 13 meters in front of you is an absolutely fantastic feeling,” says Stefan Jerg, the MAN Truck & Bus engineer who made the final preparations for the rally.

Platooning also improves traffic safety, which may sound paradoxical given the reduced distance between trucks. However, as soon as the trucks are coupled by means of electronic “drawbars” (a specialized Wi-Fi system developed for V2V communication), the technology takes over driving the following vehicles. Drivers remain in the cabs, but they only monitor everything. They can intervene at any time, and current legislation requires that they keep their hands on the steering wheel. “But from a technical standpoint, this is unnecessary,” Manuel Hiermeyer assured.

The safety aspect is also emphasized by Berlin professor Andreas Knie, mobility expert and managing director of the Innovation Center for Mobility and Societal Change (InnoZ). “Automated traffic is fundamentally superior to doing everything manually. We need to abandon the notion that humans can do everything better. They can’t; they make mistakes and get tired.” Ninety percent of traffic accidents are due to human error.

Three Mercedes-Benz Actros Highway Pilot Connect driving as a truck platoon

Daimler AG

Freight shipping will be faster in the future

Networked high-tech semi-trucks will help make it happen. The lead vehicle sends commands to the following vehicles. These commands are currently determined by a human driver in the lead vehicle who sets direction and speed. Because the trucks are digitally networked, the entire convoy can stop almost simultaneously if emergency braking is necessary. The intelligent convoy is an “important step on our path to accident-free driving,” says Sven Ennerst, Head of Product Engineering at Daimler Trucks.

Platooning is also likely to improve how roads are used. According to Daimler, a platoon of three electronically linked trucks needs a road area of 80 meters due to the reduced distance between the vehicles, which is considerably less than the 150 meters needed with typical distances between the vehicles.

Trials in real conditions

The manufacturers argue that there will be fewer traffic jams with electronically linked trucks on the roads. However, to achieve efficient road freight transport in Europe in the future, national legislation needs to be harmonized to allow semi-automated truck convoys to travel anywhere on the continent. At ACEA, it is believed that truck platoons will be driving on roads across Europe by 2023, in convoys consisting of vehicles from various manufacturers.

In the meantime, MAN and DB Schenker are analyzing driving conditions in daily traffic in a series of tests that go beyond the rally to Rotterdam. Currently, the platoons are operating without freight loads, but in 2018, testing is to be expanded to include freight transport in real conditions between the DB Schenker logistics centers in Munich and Nuremberg.