Sunday, February 11, 2018

Keep on trucking? No, Keep on Platooning!


The concept of "platooning" involves electronically connected trucks running close to each other. It is a much more innovative idea than that of self-driven private cars and it has the potential of revolutionizing road transport by drastically reducing costs. (image from scania.com).



Self-driving cars (or "automated vehicles," AVs) are all the rage in the debate. In most cases, we have a lot of hype and little evidence but it is also true that such cars are not impossible. So, what can we say about this idea?

I often say that technological progress is subjected to the golden rule that it generates more problems than it solves. So, not surprisingly, the way AVs are normally proposed today they would solve no important existing problem but would bring new ones. In most cases, you are told that you'll still own a car, use it for commuting, take your family to a vacation - the only difference with AVs is that you are relieved of the drudgery of having to keep your hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road. But a recent study reports that, under equivalent conditions of owning a driverless car, people tend to log in more miles and keep their cars circling around rather than bothering about finding a parking space. Not exactly the way to reduce traffic congestion and pollution.


But there is a different application of AVs which may qualify as a true technological breakthrough. It is "platooning." (Image from The Business Times). At first sight, it doesn't look like a big innovation. Trucks running close to each other? Didn't that already exist under the name of "trailers"?

There is a breakthrough here, and it is a big one. First of all, platooning doesn't need the massive complication of a completely self-driving car. A platoon of trucks is still supposed to be controlled by humans - what is needed for platooning are sensors and actuators coupled with some computing control. Then, of course, you need safety tricks to ensure that a "de-platooned" truck doesn't run awry, but that should not be a problem. Platooning is one of those "sweet" technologies that need only existing subsystems to function.

Then, the advantages. A minor one is that a platooned truck has a lower aerodynamic resistance. But this is peanuts in comparison to the real advantage of the scheme: saving on the cost of personnel. The platooned trucks simply do what the first truck does, there is no need for every truck to have a driver. So, connect two trucks together and you halve the number of drivers needed. Connect three or more, and you proportionally reduce the cost of the human drivers.

Now, according to a recent study of the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI), the cost of drivers represents 40% of the total transportation cost per mile (p. 24 of the report). You see how big the change could be just in terms of reducing the number of drivers.

But there is more. Right now, there is no interest in slowing down trucks in order to save fuel because the cost of drivers rises proportionally to the number of hours traveled. But for platooning it makes sense to slow down the whole train and reduce fuel costs. Slower trucks also bring fewer accidents and consequently lower insurance costs. Slower speeds also allow using smaller engines and simpler technologies. And that would also reduce the need for maintenance of roads and bridges. All these effects come together in bringing costs down.

So, platooning is a big innovation. But it must be seen in light of the evolution of the whole society. Alice Friedemann has argued in her book "When Trucks Stop Running" that trucks are a critical element of the way modern society function. Will we have sufficient resources to keep trucks running in the future, platooning or not?

Surely, a complete societal collapse generated by resource depletion or runaway climate change would necessarily ensure that the transportation system would collapse, too. But platooning could make trucking much more resilient. If trucking were to use less energy, trucks could be made to run on electric power provided by batteries or by overhead wires. Current rubber tires are made from petroleum but if the trucks slow down we won't need so much rubber as we do today and rubber synthesized from biological sources could do the job. The same is true for the asphalt of roads: slower trucks would place a lower strain on road surfaces and we might go back to "Macadamized" roads.

So, platooning is an innovation that we shouldn't ignore. And, as usual, it will have important impacts - not necessarily good. Substantially lowering the cost of road transport will make it more competitive in comparison to rail. This could further marginalize the already marginal role of railroads in freight transportation. Then, nothing prevents from platooning also buses or other kinds of vehicles, also reducing transportation costs. That might mean the end of railroads, except for high-speed trains where road vehicles can't compete.

But the truly major effect of platooning is on employment. In the US alone, there are more than 3.5 million truck drivers. Trucking is the most popular medium-skill jobs still available in most of the industrialized world. Platooning may create millions of unemployed drivers. How society will react to that is hard to say, but the shock is likely to be felt.

As usual, we move into the future driven by enthusiasm and by the idea that better technologies automatically mean better life. Platooning is just one of the new technologies which may lead us to some direction that we might not have wanted to take. But we will.




(h/t Arthur Keller)

23 comments:

  1. Seems like the ONLY efficiency anyone can imagine is how to put people out of work.

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  2. Ugo,I'm not sure your assumption people will just replace their existing car with a self-drive is valid. A study of US car use found cars are only used 5%; and they tend to use cars more in US. Owning a car drains your resources. Why not save money by just booking a self-drive when you need it whether commuting or going on holiday. It means you don't need a garage at home or to find a parking spot, road congestion is less, you don't spend time and money finding insurance, learning to drive, doing maintenance, etc.
    Also, platooning might work in some countries but not, I fear, in the UK. Most of the road system is single carriageway so imagine the frustration of being stuck behind the platoon unable to overtake!

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    1. That's exactly the point. Read how the idea of the self-driving car is presented and you'll note how careful they are to avoid hinting that it will change much more than the fact that you'll have your hands on the wheel when in your car. Disruptive technologies always start with people thinking that nothing will change!

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  3. LOL

    So having 10 individual truck engines in a small convoy is supposed to be more energy efficient than 10 railway cars and one engine running on steel rails? Aerodynamically they can't follow sufficiently close to gain much benefit because that would deny the individual engines access to cooling air. And if they ever ventured off of four lane motorways they would soon come under attack from drivers overcome by road rage. In the US, where much of the population is armed with military grade automatic weapons or flame throwers purchased from Mr. Musk, being a Platoon Leader would prove to be a very hazardous occupation.

    But "Platoons" would have great entertainment value for teenage hackers as they devise new methods to gain control and engage in creative destruction.

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    1. Anonymous, allow me to tell you that this is one of the silliest comments I have received lately. Flamethrowers against platooned trucks? Great idea, no doubt.....

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  4. As if the USofA and their cars and their trucks was the only thing that mattered in the world.
    Try the platooning in a densely populated small country, let's say England, and see how it would go. Impossible.
    Imagine the M-1 in UK already at speeds of 30 miles/hour now (believe it or not) because of the cars, and clogged with a "fatberg" of platooned trucks, any accident will stop the circulation in the heart of England for days.

    And a small problem, platoon of trucks from A to B, by the highway, OK. When it reaches B who is going to download all the goods that arrived at the same time in the platoon, tons of them?
    Perhaps the truckers now out of work, put in zero-hours contracts?
    We would see many more opioid-related deaths, then, people would shoot Fentanyl to forget what has happened to them and their lives.

    And then load them boxes without mistakes (ha!) in thousands of electric white vans to deliver to their final destinations, or to a depot and from there to the homes, stores, business, etc.

    And that is in relatively flat countries, in mountainous Spain or Italy, in a winter like the one now (-25º C in the center of Spain) where trucks and cars have to use chains on the wheels to move over the ice and snow, this idea is not worthy even of giving it a try.

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  5. Dear Ugo Bardi,
    Thanks for this very interesting post. I can certainly see this happening on the I-20 and I-10 crossing Far West Texas, which are vast, multi-lane highways running roughly east-west an which already have more truck traffic than cars. Ironically, much of said highway runs parallel to the railroad tracks.

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    1. Yes, I think in Texas they already use trailers, right? In some really low-density places, such as in Australia, a single truck may pull three trailers at the same time. Platooning would make this easier and more practical

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  6. I see that an objection is that road trains are not possible in the narrow roads of Europe. I beg to differ. In the case of Italy, the highways are already clogged with zillions of trucks. Platooning a good number of them would only improve the situation and reduce congestion. Of course, a ten truck train would be clumsy for Italy, but 3-4 platooned trucks would be perfectly possible and would reduce congestion

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  7. First question always asked in product development, what exactly is the problem/issue that this product or service is solving for? More often than not it is solving for how to get more profit in the hands of the financial interests at the expense of the other 99%.

    The trucks will be loaded and off-loaded by robots. And what are these trucks carrying? Parts for building more autonomous trucks, cars, and robots which are assembled by automated systems?

    or..... more "stuff" that all of the unemployed people are increasingly going to be ordering, delivered by driverless trucks, cars, drones.

    Where does it lead/end? Oh, right ... humanity can no longer ask that question.

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    1. What are these trucks carrying? Maybe food so that we won't starve?

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    2. Food is worthless without money to purchase it with as about a billion people can attest to.

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    3. There used to be a joke about our main north south motorway abest
      Philbout German biscuits coming to Scotland passing Scottish biscuits going to Germany, There was an element of truth in the joke.

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    4. Money? That doesn't need platooning

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  8. What happens when a platoon of trucks needs to change lanes to get to a freeway exit, and there are cars (or another platoon) in the lane they're trying to get into? Squish?

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    1. The technology includes the possibility of briefly de-platooning. Enough to let cars pass through the line of the trucks.

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  9. Platooning or not, "No device can generate energy in excess of the total energy put into constructing it"

    https://the-fifth-law.com/pages/press-release

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    1. There is another principle that say that there will always be people who know nothing of thermodynamics who will try nevertheless to invent new principles of thermodynamics

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  10. This is the journey of science, I guess!

    Some people even see E=MC^2 is having a typo, and should be sans the ^2, as nothing can go faster than light, yet alone the ^2 is an order of magnitude over the speed of light.

    Some other people never like to see this level of details - they are just happy with Thermodynamics 'as is'.

    Platooning comes in, platooning is great, we just need to keep talking about it - and so on.

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    1. You have a problem of entropy growing out of control right inside your brain.

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    2. SELF-DRIVING CARS [Not too different from Platooning] USE CRAZY AMOUNTS OF POWER, AND IT’S BECOMING A PROBLEM.

      A production car you can buy today, with just cameras and radar, generates something like 6 gigabytes of data every 30 seconds. It’s even more for a self-driver, with additional sensors like lidar. . . Prototypes use around 2,500 watts, enough to light 40 incandescent light bulbs. . . Switch over to electric cars, and that draw translates to reduced range, because power from the battery goes to the computers instead of the motors.

      AI (platooning one of them) will use much more energy than humans, but they don't function without humans.

      The predicament is from where to get all the fossil fuels to energise such a [brave] new world?

      Platooning might not be more than "entropy growing out of control right inside some-of-us' brains", but nothing about saving energy, really!

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Who

Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" to be published by Springer in mid 2017