It’s just a matter of time before technology takes over the task of piloting large commercial trucks on the highway, given the potential savings from lower fuel costs and fewer accidents. But before fully self-driving big rigs take to the roads, we could see an interim step – and similar benefits – from trucks traveling in semi-autonomously “platoons” or “road trains.”
Platooning field trials are already occurring in Europe and in the U.S. Along with European truck manufacturers and operators, Netherlands-based NXP Semiconductors is supplying technology that will make it possible and is a big proponent of platooning. This week NXP announced a new radar microcontroller, the NXP S32R27, that will improve platooning by allowing trucks to travel semi-autonomously in tighter formation and save more fuel.
“The first truck is manually driven and the rest follow as trailers” explained Lars Reger, VP of new business and R&D for NXP’s Automotive Business Unit, in a recent telephone interview. “In essence, the trucks are attached by an electronic, virtual tow bar so that they can follow each other within a very short distance, 7 meters, at 80 kilometers.”
The new NXP radar microcontroller shortens the previous following distance of 11 meters, and Reger said that this allows a five-truck platoon to save on average 10% on fuel. “The first truck is saving fuel, if less than the others, since it doesn’t have the advantage of following in the slipstream of the other trucks, but there’s less turbulence at the back of the first truck, which saves about 2% of fuel,” Reger said.
“The second truck doesn’t have wind resistance from the front because it’s following in the slipstream and doesn’t have turbulence in the back, so it saves about 11% of fuel,” he added. “The last truck has turbulence in the back so saves about 9% of fuel.”
Reger added that NXP is combining the new radar technology with vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) communication so that trucks can better anticipate problems ahead such as accidents and traffic to further save fuel and reduce accidents. “They’re getting information up to a kilometer ahead,” Reger said. “So a truck can talk to traffic lights and emergency vehicles.”
Reger said Europe’s six largest truck makers are equipping their vehicles with platooning technology and have teamed up for field trials. “Trucking companies have the highest pressure to switch to autonomous driving,” he added. “With platooning, we don’t need Level 5 autonomy because it’s basically a manual driven truck in the front, and the rest are essentially in trailer mode – an intelligent trailer, if you’d like.”