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OM in the News: Automated Driving for the Big Rigs

May 7, 2016
Platooning: Two trucks follow a lead driver in a semiautonomous convoy from Stuttgart to Rotterdam.

Platooning: Two trucks follow a lead driver in a semiautonomous convoy from Stuttgart to Rotterdam.

A new automated driving technology called platooning, which links trucks via Wi-Fi, GPS, sensors, and cameras so they can travel semiautonomously behind one another is being developed in Europe, reports Business Week (April 25-May 1, 2016). The leading rig dictates speed and direction, while the rest automatically steer, accelerate, and brake in a closely spaced convoy. “It was a little eerie to hand over part of my role as driver,” says one caravan driver. “But it was really comfortable, especially in heavy traffic or boring stretches of road.”

Although driverless cars grab headlines, it may take decades before truly autonomous vehicles rule the road. In the meantime, semiautomated convoys can help manufacturers hone the technology while cutting emissions and fuel consumption. Drivers will still be needed by law. But letting the rig do some of the work will result in less passing, quicker braking, and fuel savings of about 10% for the following trucks (and a smaller gain for the lead vehicle). And it will help reduce congestion. When a human is at the wheel, a truck in some countries must maintain a distance of about half a football field from the vehicle in front. With automation, that distance shrinks to about 50 feet.

Half the European fleet of big rigs—750,000 trucks—could be platoon-ready by 2025. Convoys will be able to form on an ad hoc basis, with drivers following a leader for anywhere from a few exits to hundreds of miles as individual vehicles pull off to make deliveries. Even though the initiative started in Europe, truck manufacturers say platooning may be even more relevant in places with wide-open roads such as Australia or the western U.S., where distances traveled are greater.

Classroom discussion questions:

  1. Why has this technology advanced so quickly?
  2. What is the main operations advantage to platooning?
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