Will the first driverless trucks be in platoons?

July 22, 2019

John Bendel

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Peloton Technology, the Silicon Valley truck platooning company, has punctured the myth that new trucking technologies like platooning and autonomous trucks are about safety, fuel efficiency, good looks or almost anything other than what they’re really for – replacing drivers.

Last week Peloton announced development of a system that allows the following truck in a two-truck platoon to be totally driverless. Peloton describes it as “a human driver in the lead truck with state-of-the-art sensors and hardware in the follow truck.”

That second truck will be neither driverless nor autonomous in the usual sense. Instead it will be controlled from – and more or less by – the lead truck. OK, fine. What counts here is this: there will be no driver in that second truck.

Finally, someone in trucking tech is proposing in the near term what has been an obvious goal since Daimler demonstrated two autonomous trucks in 2014. Yet Daimler and every other major company involved in the driverless race have maintained they’re not trying to replace drivers. Maybe by the time trucks are hauling imports from Mars they’ll be driverless, they say. But not before that. No way. They’re working to make trucking, uh, safer. Yeah. Safer.

OK, smaller players are a bit more forthright. Starsky Robotics in particular is working on trucks controlled remotely by drivers in front of computer screens – sort of like military drone pilots. But Peloton’s idea is likely to be deployed before Starsky’s.

For one thing, the general public will be less freaked out by a two-truck platoon with a human driver visible in at least one of them. The freak-out factor will rise around a lone driverless truck controlled by  – who knows? Maybe a UFO. Or worse – a computer. The smartest observers have long predicted driverless trucks will probably make their highway debut in two-truck platoons.

Peloton calls its new system L4 Automated Following. “L4” refers to level four of five tiers of vehicle automation. Five represents total, driverless automation. At level four, a vehicle is capable of “all dynamic driving tasks with a driver responding to a request to intervene.” For Peloton’s L4 Automated Following, that driver is presumably in the lead truck.

Peloton was founded in 2011 and began to promote platooning in a Utah road test in 2013 with C.R. England trucks. That was followed the next year by a highly publicized test in Nevada. Since then, the company has predicted commercial availability a number of times only to have the dates pass.

Then in January of this year, the very concept of truck platooning was set back when Daimler Trucks ceased work on platooning development, explaining the benefits were “less than expected.” Daimler said in long-distance applications it found “no business case for customers driving platoons with new, highly aerodynamic trucks.”

Ouch.

Daimler was referring to its own work, not Peloton’s. But Peloton had been working for seven years to make itself the public face of truck platooning. It had succeeded. Now the largest truck manufacturer in the world had effectively ruled platooning a waste of time. Since 2011, according to Crunchbase, investors including Volvo, Omnitracs, and UPS had put up more than $78 million. Peloton had a problem.

L4 Automated Following is an obvious next-step toward driverless trucks, but it still feels sort of like a Hail Mary pass for Peloton. Something had to be done. L4 Automated Following could be that something.

Meanwhile, in its announcement Peloton couldn’t wean itself from rapturous baloney about drivers.

The new L4 Automated Following product, Peloton said, “will enable drivers to benefit from the ongoing commercial driver shortage by doubling the amount of freight they can haul in a single trip. This will result in improved work for drivers through better routes, schedules, and compensation, as well as better quality of life through expanding hub-to-hub and relay-style operations that allow drivers to be home with their families every night.”

Gimme a break.

John Bendel

John Bendel is Land Line’s contributing editor-at-large. A former trucker, former editor at National Lampoon, and longtime truck writer, John is an author, photographer, and freelancer for New York Times. There’s more, but in short, his insight and matchless style of writing makes “Gizmos and Gears” a runaway reader favorite.