Platooning: platitudes aplenty but precious few facts

Truck operators in Coventry this month at the latest big annual Microlise transport conference who were hoping to learn something new about a much-hyped £8.1 million, government-backed UK truck platooning trial came away largely disappointed.

Rob Wallis, chief executive of TRL, a Berkshire-based research and consultancy firm that started life as the Transport and Road Research Laboratory, was one of the headline speakers at the conference. It was confirmed nine months ago by the government’s Department for Transport (DfT) that TRL had been commissioned to run the two-year trial, in collaboration with several other organisations including DAF Trucks, logistics giant DHL, and Ricardo, a big automotive engineering consultancy.

But Wallis’s presentation at the conference organised by Microlise, a Nottingham telematics firm, added little to what is known already about the trial and did nothing to assuage the concerns of those who feel that there are many better ways to spend £8.1 million of public money on road transport.

Platooning sceptics, and there are many, complain of Wallis’s presentation being strong on platitudes such as “strong stakeholder commitment” and “market engagement” but weak on substance.

Rob Wallis

There will be four phases to the project, he said. TRL and its partners are still in the planning stage and have yet to decide even which motorways on which to run the trial. On-road trials are not expected to start until spring 2019, to be followed by phase three, involving DHL drivers at the controls of the three DAF XF trucks linked by wi-fi to form a platoon.

The plan is to compare 140 platooning journeys, each of 100 miles, with 140 journeys on the same routes with non-platooned trucks.

“I stress this is not a technology demonstration,” said Wallis. “What we’re doing is platooning in real traffic. Risk assessment around the safety case is key. We believe this is a world first.”

That claim is surprising, to say the least, given all the platooning research work that has been done over the past decade in continental Europe, including on public roads.

The DAF Trucks Eco Twin project, for example, started three years ago as a partnership between the Paccar-owned truck-maker, NXP Semiconductors (a Netherlands-based company that is one of the world’s biggest suppliers of the semi-conductors and radar systems at the heart of platooning technology), TNO (a Dutch research organisation specialising in applied science), and Ricardo.

There is certainly nothing remotely new about the scientific principles behind platooning or even their application to trucks. Six years ago, Scania started working on platooning trials with a Swedish road and transport research institute.

“Reducing aerodynamic drag by drafting comes naturally to fish, birds, cross-country skiers and cyclists,” was the memorable observation at the time by one Scania engineer, Tony Sandberg.

But platooning trials by Scania and others went largely unnoticed by politicians and the public until two years ago when the Dutch government, during its six-month presidency of the European Union, staged the high-profile European Truck Platooning Challenge. This involved six truck-makers (DAF, Daimler, Iveco, MAN, Scania and Volvo Group) each dispatching a three-truck convoy from separate European cities to arrive in the Dutch port of Rotterdam on 6 April 2016. The central aim of the exercise was to highlight the disparities in legislation between EU member states that are seen to be acting as barriers to rapid platooning development.

EU Truck Platooning Challenge

It did the trick. Within days, EU transport ministers confounded the critics who accuse them of always moving at snail’s pace by signing up to the “Amsterdam declaration”, committing them to rapid harmonisation of wi-fi-connected-vehicle legal standards (V2X, in the technical jargon) across Europe.

Where will this leave the UK government as it staggers on like a drunk looking for a toilet towards the door marked Brexit? It has already been confirmed that a UK outside the EU will no longer be able to participate in the Galileo European satellite navigation project.

If platooning is ever to deliver any benefits in terms of substantial efficiency improvements, better overall fuel economy and lower emissions, data and protocol sharing between truck manufacturers and operators across Europe, as in the Galileo project, will be vital.

The point was underlined strongly at the Microlise conference by one member of a truck manufacturer panel: Iveco UK alternative fuels director Martin Flach.

“The fuel consumption benefits from platooning will always be modest, maybe 5%, and then only for the truck in the middle of the platoon,” he said.

“But the real challenge is multi-brand platooning. You have to set up protocols that can be shared between truck manufacturers. And you need a mechanism for sharing the benefits between operators. The challenge should not be underestimated.”

Flach is far from alone in seriously doubting that in the harsh, real world of road transport platooning technology really is capable of delivering anything like the benefits claimed by its advocates.

David Cebon, director of the influential Centre for Sustainable Road Freight (CSRF) and a professor at the University of Cambridge’s engineering department, is among the sceptics. He points out that far greater operational efficiency gains and cuts in carbon dioxide emissions from freight transport by road are there for the taking if the government would allow longer heavier vehicles, like those that have been successfully trialled many times throughout Europe, to operate on at least some specified UK roads.

He is not alone in being surprised at the government’s unbridled enthusiasm for electronically linking up to three maximum weight artics on public roads when it has always turned its face against on-road trials of trucks such as Denby Transport’s B-double, with just one motive unit pulling additional trailers linked perfectly safely and reliably by proven mechanical means.

The Road Haulage Association (RHA) and the main trade union for truck drivers, Unite, are also among those with serious platooning doubts.

“Of course we welcome improvements to the way the road freight industry works and we understand the benefits that such a mode of operation would bring,” said RHA chief executive Richard Burnett last year, following the £8.1m trial announcement.

“However, currently the focus seems to be on the technology behind the system. Safety has to come first and it cannot be compromised. It is crucial that this element of the concept gets the highest priority.”

Unite national officer Adrian Jones expresses other worries about practical considerations. “While Unite isn’t against the use of technology that makes our members’ jobs easier, it should not come at the cost of jobs and wages of highly-skilled lorry drivers,” he said.

“As well as major issues around safety, there’s a whole host of practical issues such as the order of a convoy where different hauliers are involved. No haulier will want its lorry at the front of a convoy for too long, but instead in the middle where their lorry will use less fuel than their competitors.”

The focus in the rest of the EU meanwhile is shifting to “multi-brand” platooning trials. A consortium with the dreadfully contrived name of Ensemble (standing for ENabling SafE Multi-Brand PLatooning for Europe) has been formed, involving all six European truck makers and several big component and system suppliers including NXP, ZF, Wabco and others.

The first Ensemble multi-brand trial in a three-year project starts later this year, with a demonstration on public roads planned for 2021.

The UK meanwhile seems determined to plough its own platooning furrow. Or is it more of a “stakeholder engagement” cul-de-sac?

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.