Imagine cruising down a three-lane highway and rounding a bend to find four trucks rolling along in single-file. They are all traveling close together – perhaps too close – but otherwise everything seems normal.
Yet as you pass the trailing truck, you look up through the sun roof to see the driver on a mobile phone. He should know better, you think as you slide by. Passing the next one, the driver appears to be sipping a cup of coffee and you could swear that he’s watching TV. That can’t be right, but you power on regardless. Then, coming alongside the third, there seems to be no driver at all. You must be mistaken, you tell yourself, as the truck stays in lane and otherwise rides as per usual.
By the time you glance up at the lead truck, you glimpse a driver concentrating on the road. Perhaps your mind was playing tricks on you after all.
Or maybe not. In February this year, a similar line-up of four large trucks circled an oval test track in Tsukuba City, Japan to help get so-called “truck platooning” technology ready for real-world use.
This technology aims to create semi-autonomous road trains, where convoys of vehicles enter a snaking train of vehicles under the command of the lead vehicle. The drivers of the “drones” are then free to do whatever they like – read a book, take a nap or just sit. When they are ready to leave, the driver takes back control and exits the train. In theory the technology offers several benefits, such as cutting down on accidents and improving fuel efficiency.
“We think that this new technology can also lead to a reduction in the amount of road space used by vehicles, which would help to reduce traffic congestion,” says Nobuo Iwai, senior researcher on the project. In fact, some estimates suggest it could double the capacity of existing highways.
The Japanese demonstration was the latest of a couple of projects set up to trial and develop the technology. A couple of years ago a project at RWTH Aachen University in Germany operated a platoon of four trucks spaced at 10m (33ft) intervals. In the US, research at the University of California, Berkeley put three-truck caravans on the road with spacing from 3 to 6m. And last year, the Scania Transport Laboratory in Sweden tested aspects of truck platooning on a 520km (325 miles) shipping route between the cities of Sodertalje and Helsingborg.
In addition, a recently completed European project led by Volvo called Safe Road Trains for the Environment (Sartre) has explored using cars and lorries simultaneously. Its platoons cruised at 85 km/h (50mph) with a gap between each vehicle of 6m. The study vehicles put in some 10,000 km (6,200 miles) of road, and – like the Japanese study – indicated that platooning could offer substantial benefits.
“Sartre showed that it is possible for vehicles – trucks and cars – to automatically follow a lead vehicle controlled by a trained driver,” says Carl Johan Alquist, traffic product safety manager at Volvo Trucks in Gothenberg, Sweden. “Technically speaking, truck platooning is not that far away; it’s the other safety and functional issues that remain to be sorted out.”
The Japanese demonstration which was conducted by researchers from the semi-governmental New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (Nedo), was intended to address some of the challenges in making the technology ready for public use by ensuring bulletproof safety and reliability. “Our target is to enable both large and small trucks to safely maintain a 4m distance between vehicles in single file while driving 80km/h,” says Iwai.