August 17, 2015 4:00 AM, EDT

Platoon Use to Begin in ’16 (includes video)

Fleet to Implement System, Peloton CEO Says
Peloton Technology
This story appears in the Aug. 17 print edition of Transport Topics.

Peloton Technology’s platooning system will be introduced into a trucking fleet’s operations for on-highway testing early next year.

“With this next step, we will show it really works in a fleet operation,” CEO Josh Switkes said in an interview with Transport Topics.

“We know every fleet is different, but this first one will help show how effective it can be” in raising fuel economy and improving highway safety, Switkes said during a recent hourlong telephone interview from his office in Mountain View, California.

He predicted platoons — a convoy of two or more trucks linked electronically to a lead truck with an active driver in each — could be a fairly “common occurrence” within three years.

He would not disclose the fleet or where the testing would take place, other than saying “our system restricts platooning to interstates and major highways.”

The tests will be limited to two-truck platoons, not only because it is technologically simpler than longer chains, but also because it helps alleviate worries regarding road users, including other truckers.

“We hear concerns we could create a blockade, making it harder to enter or exit a highway,” Switkes said. “We are confident we can handle that by automatically separating the trucks when needed.”

In the future, he said, automatic software updates are all that would be needed to move ahead to longer platoons.

Peloton has tested its platooning technology for about 15,000 miles, which Switkes classified as “way more than a typical research or demonstration project, but not yet a fully validated production system.”

That included a test in Utah with C.R. England as well as projects with the U.S. Department of Energy and other groups in several additional states.

A report earlier this year by the American Transportation Research Institute on a “driver-assistive truck platooning” project said platooning can offer the trailing truck up to 10% fuel economy and up to 5% for the leading truck. The report on the Federal Highway Administration-funding project that is led by Auburn University and includes Peloton, Peterbilt Trucks and Meritor Wabco, also said platooning could improve traffic flows if market penetration reached 60%.

It likely will be a while before platoons become that popular, but there are signs the technology is gaining momentum.

In late July, the company received an investment from Nokia Growth Partner. That announcement came on the heels of a $16 million infusion led by Denso International America and Intel Capital, with funding from Volvo Group Venture Capital, UPS Strategic Enterprise Fund and others.

“We’re working with, and getting good input from, all these companies but we don’t have any commercial arrangements or exclusivity with the companies,” Switkes said. “We plan to try to deploy our system eventually on all the OEMs and as many fleet customers as we can.”

Also in July, Switkes participated in the Automated Vehicle Symposium in Michigan, where he was one of the few focused primarily on trucking rather than cars. He said there has been one notable difference in the few years this event has taken place.

“It used to be more academics and researchers talking about automation. Now it is people really talking about deployment and real products, he said.

Switkes, who earned a doctorate in mechanical engineering from Stanford University, is one of the founders of the company formally launched in 2013. His career includes developing production control systems for Volkswagen, Audi and Tula Technology.

Peloton, named after a bicycle-racing term for a group of riders who save energy by riding in close formation, employs about 25 people. Dave Lyons, the chief innovation officer, and principal scientist Chris Gerdes are among the other co-founders. Rodney Slater, a former U.S. transportation secretary, serves on the board of directors.

Platooning is centered on a radar-based collision-avoidance system, which is offered by several industry suppliers and truck makers.

Using vehicle-to-vehicle communications, Peloton connects vehicles’ active braking and adaptive cruise control systems. While the drivers still steer (it is not designed to ever be fully autonomous) the system monitors road conditions and can recognize a need to brake before the lead driver becomes aware. The trailing truck is usually video-linked to the lead vehicle.

The braking of the rear vehicle happens almost instantaneously, Switkes said. That alleviates concerns about rear-end collisions despite the closer following distances that generate the fuel-economy benefits in the platoon.

Under ideal conditions, platooning trucks can travel as close as 36 feet from each other.

Especially for the trailing truck, “we can react much more quickly than a human . . . and even much more quickly than a radar sensor because we have this direct knowledge of the brake application in the front truck. And we know how much it has applied its brakes,” he said.

If the back truck applies the brakes, the trucks will automatically delink. The platooning distance can also be automatically changed if a car attempts to cut between the platoon.

This happens through the company’s completely automated “platooning network operations center.” Switkes said the company’s system also allows it to automatically restrict platoons when the situation arises and adjust following distances remotely based on road or weather conditions.

Initially, the most likely platooning scenario involves one fleet sending out two trucks from the same facility. They could platoon along much of the route before separating for their final destinations.

However, Switkes said the company’s operations center can help locate platooning partners from different fleets or owner-operators. In that scenario, a driver would be automatically notified, and, if accepted, would be provided instructions on the need to slow down or speed up to automatically make an electronic connection of the trucks happen.

Switkes acknowledged that some carriers could be leery — or simply refuse — to platoon with others they view as competitors, but he believes the more they learn about the fuel savings and safety benefits of the system, those concerns likely will subside.

Switkes said the vehicle-to-vehicle communications gives Peloton access to performance and load information that enhances safety. For example, the system would have data about the type and condition of brakes of each vehicle and order them with best brakes in the back.

Likewise, he said truckers will take to the platooning concept, one he believes can make the job a “bit less stressful.”

“Let’s not throw out that experience and that skill, but let’s give drivers the tools to do their jobs better,” he said. “Humans are limited in reaction time — we can address that in vehicle-to-vehicle communications.”

Switkes said platooning generally has been well-received among a number of states, including Utah, California, Florida and Iowa. Several have gone so far as to clarify existing tailgating laws to ensure testing can successfully be undertaken.

Continuing to educate the public also needs to take place.

“As an industry, we have to really put it out there for the public, he said. “Here is the benefit — now let us prove it to you so you accept it.”

Switkes said that process may be easier for platooning than autonomous-driving trucks, similar to what Daimler AG showed in Nevada this past May.

“There is a lot more attention on truck automation than there was before,” he said, “and that is good for the whole industry.”