In June 2018, Volvo and FedEx teamed up to run a live test of platooning technology on a stretch of highway in North Carolina. The trucks traveled for 18 miles. They successfully moved in and out of traffic and used ramps to enter and exit the highway.
But what exactly are platooning systems capable of? And how long before freight companies roll the technology out on a larger scale?
Platooning is an advanced form of cruise control that allows two or more trucks to communicate with each other and drive closer together in small convoys or “platoons.”
In this system, a human driver remains at the wheel at all times. But platooning is still a form of autonomous driving. That’s because the technology allows software in the trucks to coordinate the vehicles’ acceleration and braking without the need of constant input from the driver.
The primary benefit of platooning is increased safety. These “cooperative adaptive cruise control” systems allow vehicles to travel much closer together than a human driver could safely achieve. (In the case of the North Carolina test, three twin trucks traveled at speeds of up to 62 mph while maintaining a time gap of just 1.5 seconds.)
The other benefit is improved fuel efficiently. The shorter following distance between platooning trucks reduces wind drag, which allows the vehicles to use less fuel.
Platooning does have some pitfalls that automakers and trucking companies will have to overcome in order for the technology to spread.
The biggest downside is security.
In 2016, a group of University of Michigan researchers demonstrated software vulnerabilities in the types of industrial vehicles used in platooning. The group sent digital signals within the internal network of a big rig truck. This allowed them to change the readout of the truck’s instrument panel, trigger unintended acceleration, and even disable braking systems.
And the researchers highlighted another disturbing vulnerability. They found that developing attacks on the big rig was actually easier than with consumer cars. This is due to a common communication standard used in most industrial vehicle networks. “It is imperative that the trucking industry begins to take software security more seriously,” the researchers concluded.
But despite these security issues, more firms are moving forward with platooning. Peloton Technology, a platooning developer based in California, expects its technology to be operating commercially by the end of this year.