No more two-lane highway headaches? Europe demos semi-autonomous truck platoon

When people talk about self-driving vehicles, it's usually in reference to passenger cars that will whisk us to and from work while we recline in comfort, reading a book or catching up on Netflix. This is understandable; the car makers, technology companies, and other autonomous advocates want to raise public awareness and acceptance of self-driving technology, and linking it to a frustration-free commute is certainly a way of doing that.

But it's not just passenger vehicles that are going to go hands-free—the implications for road haulage and the freight sector are going to be massive. Over in Europe, a demonstration of semi-autonomous trucking called the European Truck Platooning Challenge wrapped up successfully on Wednesday. Organized by the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment, it involved trucks from six different European manufacturers (DAF Trucks, Daimler, IVECO, MAN, Scania, and Volvo).

Several trucks from each company left their home bases and traveled in platoons to the Dutch port of Rotterdam, arriving en masse on April 6. The trucks in each platoon were connected via Wi-Fi, which enabled them to be synchronized and therefore driven much closer to each other than would be possible with just human drivers on board. Of course, we're not talking about completely autonomous (level 4) vehicles here—there was a driver on board each vehicle. But the trucks were equipped with radar and optical sensors, making them at least as smart as the semi-autonomous Teslas, Audis, and other cars we've been driving here at Ars recently.

The advantages of networked platooned trucks are pretty apparent. For one thing, there's almost no reaction time within the platoon—if the lead truck encounters the need to slow down or brake, all the trucks in the platoon respond at once. And by closing the gap between each vehicle, the trucks benefit from decreased wind resistance and therefore better fuel economy—up to 10 percent—which not only saves truck operators money but also means less carbon dioxide emissions.

Here in the US, the first level 3 autonomous truck was unveiled last year by Freightliner, an event which set off a lot of worrying about the impact of the technology on an industry that employs 3.5 million people. That view may be needlessly alarmist. For one thing, there's actually a shortage of truck drivers in the US, and some in the industry think that semi-autonomous tech that can reduce one's workload and decrease stress could do a lot toward making trucking a more attractive career.

And as with fully autonomous passenger cars, a completely autonomous truck that can travel from A to B with no human intervention beyond setting the route remains at least 20 to 30 years away by almost all estimates. In the meantime, if networked truck platoons can cut down carbon emissions and improve road safety—and eradicate the annoyance that is one truck slowly overtaking another on a two-lane highway—we're all for it.



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