Platooning jitters following Daimler U-turn

Big question marks over further development work on truck platooning have been raised by an unexpected U-turn by Daimler, the world’s biggest truck manufacturer.

Speaking in Las Vegas, Nevada last month at the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show (CES), the Daimler group’s truck and bus division boss, Martin Daum, confirmed that the decision had been taken to spend no more of the group’s enormous R&D budget on platooning, which it defines as “the electronic coupling of two or more trucks with significantly reduced distance between them, in theory to improve aerodynamic efficiency and thereby save fuel.”

This announcement comes only a little over one year since Daimler seemed ready to intensify and extend global work on platooning by becoming deeply involved in a Japanese government project.

“Two years ago, we demonstrated with Mercedes-Benz trucks in Europe that platooning can be done and is highly advantageous,” said Baum in January 2018.

“Right now, we keep developing the technology with Freightliner on public roads in the US. Japan is a key market for us that is on the lookout and promotes new technologies. We take part in the Japanese government’s initiative to push platooning further ahead in Asia and to remain in the lead in the development of this technology.”

Fuso platooning in Japan
Fuso platooning in Japan

It is clear that Daimler’s U-turn and Daum’s decision to ditch research in this particular area has nothing to do with any lack of cash.  Daum revealed last month that an additional €500 million (£438 million) had been budgeted for what he describes as “a global push to bring highly automated trucks (SAE level 4) on to the roads within a decade.”

Around 200 new jobs are expected to be created, mostly at a new automated truck research and development centre at the Daimler Trucks North America base in Portland, Oregon.

A fuller explanation for the decision to end years of Daimler truck platooning research came this month in Germany from Stefan Buchner, head of Mercedes-Benz Trucks, at the presentation of the latest Daimler Trucks annual results.

“It’s very simple,” he said. “After analysing the results of several years of platooning development, we came to the conclusion that it does not fulfil our requirements on fuel economy.

“It doesn’t make sense to invest further in platooning technology because the fuel consumption benefits we expected are not there.”

Daimler engineers had expected that the fuel economy benefit for the middle truck in a three-vehicle close-coupled convoy (or “platoon”) would be in the order of 7 to 11%. They found in reality that no more than a 2% gain could be found, and even this was impossible to achieve in practice both on long, straight US highways with little traffic, let alone on more congested and twisting European and Japanese roads.

Balanced against the cost of developing the required technology, the potential gain was judged simply not to be cost-effective.

“We expected more,” admits Buchner. He is at pains to point out, however, that Daimler will continue to honour its “existing commitments” on shared development work. These include the EU-funded European Truck Platooning Challenge of 2016, backed by all six big European truck manufacturers (including Daimler), which spawned the Ensemble (Enabling Safe Multi Brand Platooning for Europe) consortium.

European platooning trial
European Truck Platooning Challenge, 2016

This includes several big component and system suppliers (including NXP, ZF and Wabco) as well as vehicle manufacturers. An Ensemble demonstration on public roads had been planned by 2021. Now it remains to be seen whether any members of this consortium will follow Daimler in backing away from platooning.

The UK’s Department for Transport (DfT) appears to be determined, despite Daimler’s decision, to press on regardless with its backing of a much-criticised £8.1 million platooning trial on UK roads, managed by TRL (formerly the Transport Research Laboratory) and involving three DAF XF trucks driven by DHL drivers. On-road trials are expected to start this spring.

Tim Blakemore
Tim Blakemore
Tim Blakemore is an award-winning automotive journalist and the former editor of our sister title, Commercial Vehicle Engineer magazine. He is also the UK representative on the panel of judges for the biennial, pan-European Trailer Innovation Award scheme.