What is platooning, and can it save hauliers time and money?

What is platooning, and can it save hauliers time and money?

Following years of technological development, automated technologies are finally filtering into the haulage industry, giving trucks capabilities that have slowly been percolating through the automobile market for years. One of the products of these innovations is platooning.

What is platooning?

When platooning, two or more trucks are fitted with hi-tech driving support systems that, when linked to one another, allow the vehicles to drive in convoy, overseen by drivers. That’s not all though: thanks to smart wireless technology, the vehicles are able to behave in unison, braking, accelerating and turning as one.

While drivers still must sit behind the wheel of every vehicle in the convoy, a degree of decision-making is handed over to the vehicle. Because platooned trucks can brake at one fifth a human’s reaction time, this lets them to drive as little as 10m from one another, as opposed to the 50m distance stipulated in the highway code.

What are the benefits of platooning?

This reduced driving distance gives hauliers a range of benefits, but also impacts the entire road network, giving positives for every driver.

Less fuel consumption

Because platooned trucks travel deep well within the slipstream of the preceding vehicle, they’re far more aerodynamic than usual, reducing drag and the need to burn more fuel - one UK Government study found fuel usage dropped 22% for the second truck and, surprisingly, 9% for the lead vehicle.

Lower CO2 emissions

With less fuel being burned, trucks’ carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide and particulate emissions are reduced, helping achieve climate targets and improving the health of passers-by.

Safer roads

90% of vehicle accidents happen due to human error, and while semi-automation does have challenges – system failure and hacking, for instance – it does eliminate the dangers surrounding tiredness, road rage and miscalculation.

More road area

With less space between trucks and fewer instances of trucks slowly overtaking one another, space on the roads is optimised, meaning more cars can use them, tailbacks are shorter and there’s less of a need to spend money growing the existing road network.

However, it remains to be seen how long it will take a lone, singular, lorry to overtake a pair of platooning lorries up a hill...

Will platooning actually happen?

Haulage automation has been talked about for years, so when’s it going to happen? Well, it could be on the horizon: according to the European Automobile Manufacturers Association, the technology could be introduced to the market as soon as 2022. Nevertheless, this date very much hedges on whether the legal frameworks and technological infrastructure for multi-brand platooning are in place – lorries from the same haulier rarely drive in convoy, after all.

After these hurdles are crossed, platooned vehicles will need to be able to communicate with other semi-autonomous vehicles, particularly cars. Trials will also be required – the Department of Transport is currently investing £8.1 million in the technology – to help build safe systems.
If all these innovations come to fruition, the entire network will be able to work as a synchronised whole, with all the associated benefits. Hauliers agree too – at the 2018 Microlise Transport Conference, when polled, over 60% of attendees either strongly or mostly agreed that connected, highly-automated vehicles would improve reliability, boost road capacity, reduce operating costs and improve safety on Britain’s roads.

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