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Closing the Gap.

Muscle power and the Belgian tourniquet.

Competitive cyclists know that riding in a slipstream is easier. This is why they take close formation when riding at speed. During this time, the bikes are only a few centimetres apart. This technique is known as the Belgian tourniquet. Riders at the back of the group enjoy reduced air resistance and thus less exertion.

Nature also has its own ways to maximise efficiency. Migratory birds cover long distances to reach their breeding or wintering grounds. But instead of flying in single file, these birds create a ‘V’ formation. Each wingtip generates a small vortex of air that provides lift to the birds flying behind.

Drafting via WiFi.

Drafting can also make road transport more eco-friendly. Aerodynamic resistance is reduced when vehicles travel in a line while maintaining proximity to each other - at a distance of around 10 to 15 metres. This can lower fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by up to 10 percent. Another advantage is that a convoy traveling close together requires around half the road space as unassociated trucks driving 50 metres apart.

The concept of organising vehicles into convoys is called platooning. A platoon consists of two or more vehicles connected via WiFi and equipped with autonomous driving assistance systems: sensors, cameras, radar, and Lidar. The leading vehicle determines the direction and speed of the platoon, while the others follow at an equal distance. The autonomous system frees drivers to perform other tasks while driving. If a unit leaves the convoy, all other drivers once again assume full control and responsibility of their vehicles.

Platooning improves safety on the road.

Once a vehicle assumes a position in a platoon, it automatically remains in the prescribed lane. Its system measures the distance from the vehicle ahead, and can brake independently if speed is reduced at the front of the convoy. This system reacts within 0.1 seconds, 1.3 seconds faster than a human driver. Over 50,000 accidents were caused by tailgating on German roads in 2016. And more than 4,500 of these involved trucks. Platooning offers great potential as a means of improving traffic safety and saving lives.

New options for drivers.

Platooning has clearly attracted the attention of the transport industry. In Germany, trucks account for nearly 80 percent of freight traffic, and this number is rapidly growing. Because of rising competition and cost pressures, freight companies are invested in improving the efficiency of their operations.

In addition, it is becoming more difficult for freight carriers to recruit qualified drivers. Platooning relieves daily work routines on the road. If a driver can take his hands off the wheel for a long time, he could possibly attend to other tasks. These include bookkeeping, organising the next shipment, or simply resting. Professional drivers will continue to play a key role in the future – even when vehicle operation becomes fully autonomous. This is because the acumen of an experienced trucker will still be useful in certain scenarios, such as driving in urban areas.

European truck manufacturers are ready.

n April 2016, six groups of trucks from various European countries departed for Rotterdam. This successful European Truck Platooning Challenge showed that truck manufacturers DAF, Mercedes-Benz, Iveco, MAN, Scania, and Volvo re ready to deploy fully functional platoons onto the road.

These companies are currently gathering additional experience and data. DAF is on the road in the UK working in cooperation with TNO, Ricardo, and DHL. In the spring of 2018, MAN and DB Schenker will launch a platooning fleet on the A9 autobahn between Munich and Nuremberg.

Daimler, the first truck manufacturer in the world, will introduce truck platooning to US highways starting 2018. In cooperation with major clients, everyday freight transport operations will be tested in Oregon by two connected freightliner trucks.

Autopilots from Silicon Valley.

Several Silicon Valley startups are developing technologies and platforms that will enable trucks to operate autonomously, both independently and as part of a platoon. Peloton is working on vehicle-to-vehicle networking for truck fleets and has begun testing with Volvo. UPS and Intel are also investing in this new technology.

American truck manufacturer Peterbilt is working together with Embark. This startup is focusing on a self-learning autopilot system that can guide a truck along a highway. Drivers will only need to operate the vehicle for the short distances to and from the interstate.

Uber acquired Otto and integrated the company into its ATG portfolio. Using the hardware and software developed by the startup, older trucks can be upgraded to self-driving vehicles. In October 2016, Otto sent a truck loaded with 50,000 cans of Budweiser beer on a 120 mile journey. The truck completed the entire highway portion of the journey without a driver.

Tesla has announced the launch of a self-driving, electric truck that can be linked into a platoon. Google parent company Alphabet has also added an autonomous truck unit to its Waymo program for driverless cars.

Japan and China are moving forward.

Isuzu and Hino have joined forces to bring the platooning concept to Japan. Starting in spring 2018, the benefits of platooning will be tested and demonstrated under real-world conditions between Tokyo and Nagoya. China is following suit, with manufacturer FAW Jiefang announcing plans to launch its first autonomous truck by 2018.

Networking all the players.

Integration across the industry promises to add momentum to the movement. Apps and platforms like Uber Freight, KeepTruckin, Project44, Cargonexx, and OnTruck are already connecting intermediaries in the supply chain with just a few clicks. Tailored to the truck industry, these systems are designed to work as simply as Airbnb.

The core objective is to utilise trucks as efficiently as possible. Shared data and intelligent algorithms can be used to reduce the number of empty journeys. In Germany alone, empty trucks traveled nearly three million miles in 2014.

Logic of the Belgian tourniquet.

Major truck manufacturers have already confirmed that platooning is technologically feasible. Currently, the legal ‘safe distance’ between vehicles is based on human reaction time. But it won't be long before regulations accommodate this new technology.

However, the great platooning revolution seems to be stuck at the starting blocks. This may be due to the challenge of creating interfaces for suppliers across different platforms. Or it could be a question of potential profits. Perhaps a 10% fuel saving is not enough to justify startup investment.

Once again, the image of the Belgian tourniquet comes to mind. This cycling tactic distributes the wind across the group. When a breakaway team merges into a gap in the main field of riders, one thing becomes clear: if you want to win the race, you have to jockey for position. Breaking away from the mainstream is a matter of timing, teamwork, and strategy. It's a question of where you want to position yourself – at the forefront, or in the midfield?

Authors: Christian Geiss and Jens Wollweber