Techno-optimist prognosticators will tell you that driverless trucks are just around the corner. They will also gently tell you—always gently—that yes, truck driving, a job that nearly 3.7 million Americans perform today is perhaps on the brink of extinction. At the very least, on the brink of uncomfortable change.
A startup called Peloton Technology sees the future a bit differently. Based in Mountain View, California, the eight-year-old company has a plan to broadly commercialize a partially automated truck technology called platooning. It would still depend on drivers sitting in front of a steering wheel but it would be more fuel efficient and, hopefully, safer than truck-based transportation today.
The company employs ten professional truck drivers to help refine its tech, and I’m about to meet two of them out on Peloton’s test track in California’s Central Valley. Michael Perkins is tall, thin, and has been driving very big trucks for about 20 years. Jake Gregory is shorter and picked up truck driving in college, before taking a detour to the FBI.
We hit the highway first, because the rain has suddenly cleared. (Here’s an unfortunate reality about Peloton’s driver assistance tech: It doesn’t work great in the rain. Or snow. It’s a safety issue. More on that later.) Out on Interstate-5, Perkins’ long, white semitrailer cruises along in front of me. I’m on board the second, identical truck behind it, with Gregory behind the wheel. A small screen mounted on Gregory’s dashboard shows a camera view of what’s happening in front of Perkins’ rig. It’s like their trucks are connected. Which, in fact, they are about to be.
Perkins radios in that he’s ready to go; Gregory says he is too. Inside the two truck cabs, each driver hits a button. Three ascending tones—la, la, la—means Peloton’s automated system has authorized the trucks to platoon on this stretch of highway. A dedicated short range communications (DSRC) connection is now established between the two vehicles. It’s like WiFi but faster and easier to secure. Now, whatever the front truck does, the back truck in will near-simultaneously “know”—and react accordingly.
Then Gregory speeds up, pulling his truck up so it’s tailgating about 70 feet from the leader. Sounds risky! But right now, the two trucks are platooning. Ours is on a kind of hopped-up cruise control, which means Gregory’s feet aren’t actually controlling the brakes or accelerator. At the same time, Gregory maintains control of his steering wheel. If Perkins were to brake, hard, Gregory’s truck would, too, faster than a human could. The robots have taken over. Kind of? Not really? More like, they’re collaborating, with some human oversight.
Peloton’s name, a reference to bicycle racing, helps explain how this platooning works. Just as the riders in the peloton, or main group of racing cyclists, preserve energy by drafting off of those around them, the following trucks in the truck platoon reduce their aerodynamic drag by drafting off the ones in front of it. The lead truck, meanwhile, get a little push. This saves fuel, according to Pelton—up to 10 percent for the following car and 4.5 percent for the first one, depending on the road and weather conditions and the following distance. It might also prevent crashes, since this tech has much faster reaction times (about 30 milliseconds) than puny humans (about 1 to 1.5 seconds).
Other companies in Europe, China, Japan, and Singapore are seriously experimenting with truck platooning. The American military has hosted platooning demonstrations. Just this week, the US Department of Transportation gave out $1.5 million in grants to universities studying the tech. And Peloton has tested in a bunch of US states: Arizona, California, Michigan, Florida, and Texas, where Peloton has immediate plans to run the majority of its routes.
Right now, the company says it does have paying customers, though it won’t reveal their names until later this year. According to Josh Switkes, the company’s CEO, some pair of US truck drivers are running a route while platooning on a Peloton-enabled truck every day.
And testing continues, on the software in its office, on its test track, and on actual highways, where it confirms the technology’s reliability. “The highway or field is not for testing,” Switkes says. “The goal of testing is to find failures, and you don’t want those failures to be on public roads.” In a report released today, the company lays out this approach to safety for regulators and interested industry parties alike. It borrow from automotive processes more than Silicon Valley-style software ones, amounting to something like, easy does it.
It turns out, the linking-up move Perkins and Gregory just performed on I-5 is one of the most safety-critical parts of truck platooning, says Switkes. The moment when the following truck has to move faster than the one in front of it is the most dangerous part.
To make sure drivers like Perkins and Gregory don’t crash into each other, or anyone else, Peloton needs to make sure that the platooning drivers know how the tech works. (Right now, the company’s driver training process takes about a half a day.) It also needs to understand exactly how heavy the trucks are when they start platooning, how their brakes are working, and how their tires function. For this reason, the company says, it has carved out partnerships with its suppliers, which means its trucks are built from the ground up with platooning in mind.
This is also why Peloton doesn’t platoon in the rain right now, or in the snow: The company can’t yet gauge exactly how tires deteriorate over time, which means it can’t quite predict how they’ll react in a hard-braking situation. Worn tires might slide in the moisture, leading to a domino chain of truck crashes. So no platooning in the Midwest in the winter, or anywhere during a rainy spring. “On certain routes, it’s a significant limitation,” says Switkes. “But we’re erring on the side of safety.”
And if that seems a little dull, Switkes would tell you that’s the point. His favorite word is “pragmatic,” and he doesn’t believe driverless trucks will prowl the highways any time soon. The technology is too complicated, he argues, and developers will have to go through years of safety testing before they’re ready for the roads—and before the public feels safe riding in their own bitty cars around 50,000-pound robot trucks. So Peloton is going all in on making human-based driving both safer and more efficient. With a bit of tech boost.
Not all manufacturers agree: In January, Daimler announced it would stop its platooning development to focus on autonomous trucking. Tests showed that “fuel savings, even in perfect platooning conditions, are less than expected,” the German company wrote in a press release. “At least for U.S. long-distance applications, analysis currently shows no business case for customers driving platoons with new, highly aerodynamic trucks.”
Platooning advocates disagree, but even the most supportive believe finding a market for this trucker assistance isn’t simple. Steven Shladover is researcher with the California Partners for Advanced Transportation Technology program at UC Berkeley. He has studied platooning for two decades, and points out that the truck industry would need to execute a fair bit of choreography to pull off platooning. Fleet operators would have to coordinate deliveries, matching up trucks heading in the same direction at the same time. “Does the truck industry see enough of a benefit in platooning to fit it into their operational strategies?” he says.
While everyone in trucking waits to find out, Perkins and Gregory head back to Peloton’s test track and proceed to show off a few, freakier moves: some hard braking, some driving side-by-side to prove that the trucks can still “talk” to each other in that position. At one point, another company employee in a white Toyota Tundra cuts into the 55-foot space between the two trucks, and they smoothly part to make room for him. Maybe platooning will improve life for truckers—too bad it can’t fix the problem of everyday reckless drivers, too.