It could make sense for trucks travelling in the same direction to just hand over the controls to one of the drivers. For one thing, they would use less fuel, say EU-funded researchers who have developed a 'platooning' system. Their technology creates an electronic link between the vehicles.
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The EU-funded SARTRE project was dedicated to the advancement of platooning technology for transport. It developed a demonstrator of a sensor-based system that is designed to operate alongside normal traffic and would not require any modifications to the motorway.
The system involves several trucks or cars following a lead vehicle entrusted to a professional driver, who controls steering, acceleration, speed and braking for the entire platoon. Everyone else can relax a possibility that would be a game changer for anyone who has to drive long distances.
In contrast with other systems, the approach proposed by SARTRE does not involve a mechanical link, says Eric Chan of engineering consultancy Ricardo UK. He is the project’s chief engineer. Vehicles share data electronically so that they operate in a coordinated manner, he notes. They could join the platoon at any stage to facilitate their journey, help reduce congestion and boost sustainability, and they could also leave whenever it suits them.
The vehicles would travel very closely together, with gaps down to 4 metres. In the trials conducted by the project, the platoon was composed of a lead truck, a second truck and three cars, Chan explains. Fuel efficiency gains were observed not only for the second truck, but also for the lead truck of up to 16 % and 8 % respectively as well as for the cars, he reports.
Generally speaking, platooning would reduce carbon emissions, the SARTRE partners argue, and they also expect the technology to produce safety benefits. However, Chan observes, a demonstrator does not a deployable technology make: there is still a lot to do before the first road trains based on such a system are ready to roll. The technology has to be developed up to a point where it is able to operate reliably in the full range of conditions and situations it is likely to encounter.
And beyond technical feasibility and implementation, there are plenty of other aspects to consider notably with regard to liability and cybersecurity.
“Platooning is step on the road to vehicle automation,” Chan observes. It’s a sizeable challenge, but he reports that a number of European countries have shown interest in this type of approach.
In 2016 the "European Truck Platooning Challenge" took place. Seven truck brands ran platoons on public roads from several European cities to the finish in the Netherlands. Additional trials have been announced, and the EU is pursuing its efforts to advance the required research and development. “There is a lot happening in this space,” Chan concludes.