Friday, May 22, 2015

Volvo buys into truck platooning

Little more than a week after Daimler introduced its Freightliner autonomous truck using Las Vegas as a backdrop and the Hoover Dam as a movie screen, Volvo Trucks treated invited guests, including this fortunate reporter, to a celebration of the Volvo Ocean Race in Newport, R. I. Volvo took the occasion to update its invited dealers, employees, and media reps on company news.

With the last echoes of the Daimler event still in our ears, I didn’t expect to hear much from Volvo about autonomous trucks. Sure enough the only significant mention came from Susan Alt, senior vice president, public affairs for Volvo, who in answer to a question at the presentation said that as far as general highway use was concerned, “We won’t see autonomous trucks in our lifetime.”

Of course, that’s just one opinion. And it doesn’t mean Volvo is out of the highway technology race by any means. On the contrary, they may simply have bet on another horse. Just one week before Daimler’s Hoover Dam uber-spectacle, Volvo announced it had invested in a U.S. company called Peleton Technology. Based 1.2 miles and 6 minutes from Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., Peleton is in the freshly hatched industry of truck platooning.

Peleton has technology, both hardware and software, that enables trucks to platoon along highways, one behind the other close enough to cut air drag on all – even the lead truck – and save fuel. It’s all about smart algorithms and wireless communication.

Taking a big step beyond adaptive cruise and collision mitigation, Peleton connects truck systems wirelessly. If one driver hits the brakes, brakes on the following trucks will engage also. If a car tries to cut between two platooning trucks, the trailing truck will automatically drop back and allow the car in.

There’s a lot of sophisticated stuff going on here, so sophisticated in fact, that using the Peleton system trucks can join or leave a platoon in motion, on the highway. The company envisions a national control center accessible to all Peleton-equipped trucks and platoons at all times over the Internet.

So when I had the opportunity at a Volvo breakfast last week, I asked Volvo Trucks North America President Göran Nyberg about the Volvo-Peleton relationship. Nyberg had been quoted in a Volvo release saying “We look forward to working with Peleton as they work on a platooning solution.” This was apparently more than a hands-off, money-only investment.

Why had Volvo invested in advanced technology for quick, ad-hoc creation of platoons? Wasn’t that capability ahead of what was needed? Would small fleets and owner-operators even want to take part? Wouldn’t the big fleets simply assemble platoons of their own?

Volvo very much appreciated that element of the technology, Nyberg said after breakfast. In fact, he noted, it will be exactly those major fleets that will cooperate with each other in forming appropriate, fuel-saving platoons. But then our brief conversation was over.

It took me a moment, but then the idea coalesced.

Of course it will be big fleets. Who else will be able to invest in the equipment? Who else has so many trucks on the road heading in so many directions?

But those companies won’t necessarily assemble the platoons. Individual drivers will, using that ad-hoc system. They’ll do it in the most practical way – as trucks already on the road, ready on a moment’s notice to join a platoon. No waiting to assemble, no delays. Peleton’s control center will enable it. Peleton-equipped trucks will simply join and leave platoons as they roll.

Since there will be a real driver steering (not reading a newspaper or telemarketing) in each truck, platooning could happen sooner than autonomous trucking. And I have to guess that those platoons will likely feature not just one, but a mix of fleet names – big fleet names.

A potential downside: Peleton says their platooning system will be available to small fleets and owner-operators, but that will not prevent big fleets from agreements with each other to lock out other, probably smaller players from individual platoons. The benefits of platooning, then, could accrue almost exclusively to the big fleets that rarely miss an opportunity to make things difficult for small truckers.