October 10, 2016 3:30 AM, EDT

Panel Says Platooning Is Near, Driverless Trucks Far Away

John Sommers II for TT

This story appears in the Oct. 10 print edition of Transport Topics.

LAS VEGAS — Advancements in trucking technology are paving the way for the industry to experience two-vehicle platoons soon, but the driverless heavy-duty trucks idea remains a distant vision, according to executives from leading firms in both industries.

Peloton Technology, Otto and Daimler Trucks North America officials talked about trucks linked by smart technology and stocked with safety equipment that makes longhaul driving less exhausting — and even the remote possibility of eliminating drivers.

They made the comments Oct. 4 during a Transport Topics panel discussion at the Management Conference & Exhibition of American Trucking Associations.

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Anthony Levandowski, a co-­founder of Otto, which is develop­ing an autonomous aftermarket kit for trucks and was recently sold to Uber, said by the end of the year the company will start a venture to make freight delivery more efficient.

Meanwhile, Josh Switkes, CEO and co-founder of Peloton Technology, said his company will bring two-truck platoons to U.S. highways next year.

“This will be like adopting automated manual transmissions,” Switkes said. “Collision mitigation systems and platooning will improve the abilities of less experienced drivers.”

While multitruck platoons are possible, Switkes said he wants to start with pairs that would be connected with wireless links. Each truck would have a driver, and the second truck would follow behind by 40 feet to 50 feet.

Backed by supporters including Volvo Group and UPS Inc., Switkes said the arguments in favor of platooning are fuel efficiency from reduced aerodynamic drag and improvements in safety. Brake reaction time falls to 0.03 second with active safety systems, Switkes said, compared with 1.5 seconds for a person.

“We only platoon when it’s safe and where it’s safe,” Switkes said.

In addition to developing and deploying platoon technology, part of Peloton’s job is akin to a dating service. While some carriers would benefit from having their own trucks travel in pairs, Switkes said afterward in an interview that his company can help match up likely platoon partners.

“Some fleets are nervous about platooning with trucks from other carriers, but today a driver will follow behind someone he doesn’t know at all,” Switkes said, defending the recommendations Peloton would offer to customers.

Switkes said that in addition to Nevada, nine states have approved testing for platoons: Alabama, California, Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Virginia. More than 20 states, he said, are in the process of considering rules.

Sean Waters of DTNA and Jude Hurin of the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles talked about how Freightliner came to the Silver State to develop the autonomous driving-enabled Inspiration truck that debuted at the Hoover Dam in May 2015.

In contrast to Levandowski, Waters said DTNA’s efforts on autonomous assistance are based firmly on the notion “there are still drivers in control of vehicles.”

Waters said Daimler could have developed Inspiration in a state without any regulation of testing, “but we did it where there were tough regulations. We wanted to be challenged.”

Nevada’s Hurin said Gov. Brian Sandoval, a Republican, is eager to diversify the economy.

“We’re not just gambling and mining. The governor is huge on technology,” Hurin said in an interview after the panel.

While Las Vegas and Reno are metropolitan areas, Hurin said much of Nevada is sparsely populated, making it ideal for testing.

“You can go on two- or three-week sessions on long stretches of highway that no one knows about except for jack rabbits and sage brush,” Hurin said.

The balancing test for the state, he said, is being welcoming yet mindful of safety.

“We don’t just want to be first, but first with safety when a company is really ready,” Hurin said.

Also on the panel was trucking journalist Jack Roberts, who was lead author of a just-­released report on platooning for the North American Council for Freight Efficiency. He found that both trucks saw their miles per gallon increase on test tracks because of platooning, by about 4% for the lead vehicle and 8% for the following one. However, the report also said platoon results on real streets would vary.

He said the autonomous braking is faster than a human can perform and that trucks made by different brands and used by different fleets should be able to communicate with each other.

The panel was moderated by TT Editorial Director Neil Abt and sponsored by Freightliner Trucks and Omnitracs.