One of the biggest questions for businesses that run a commercial fleet has been ‘how are we going to improve efficiency in order to survive in the coming years?’ There have been two trains of thought recently, but doubts have been cast over the future of platooning.
Fleet management has always been challenging. With an ever more demanding consumer base and increasing pressure on delivery times, business sustainability and public perception of large companies, times are more challenging now than ever before.
A number of businesses involved in producing commercial vehicles, along with companies that operate commercial fleets, believed that platooning may be the answer to their problems. The idea is that multiple commercial vehicles are linked together and controlled semi-autonomously, allowing them to operate closer together at higher speeds. This could then improve traffic flow through increased vehicle efficiency and therefore lower CO2 as a result.
Questions have been raised over the safety of platooning and specifically the level of driver involvement. It is important to know that platooning is not designed to remove human drivers completely. There must be at least one driver, and this driver’s actions are mirrored by the interlinked vehicles. Based on set safe distances between vehicles, there should be enough time for those following to react to incidents autonomously, however harsh manoeuvres by the lead driver mean there is no way to prevent impacts with nearby manually-operated vehicles.
One of the motoring industries biggest names, however, has decided that platooning is no longer a part of its plans. Daimler announced earlier this month that it sees “no business case” for platooning. A major component in Daimler's decision was due to lower than expected fuel-saving improvements during the platooning projects the company has run over the last year.
Daimler’s Martin Daum, head of the German companies Global Truck and Bus business division, said last autumn that their tests using recent-model tractor-trailers with highly advanced aerodynamic systems had shown results that were not “as hoped”.
While fuel saving has always been held as a key potential advantage to platooning, there have also been those who openly recognise the challenges in achieving it. In a 2017 feasibility study produced by the British Government, the challenges in saying definitively that platooning improved fuel economy were clearly stated.
“In order to collect statistically significant data for an impact assessment, the effect of variations encountered during daily haulage operations should be compensated for” the study said. “These variations could include load, weather, seasons, driver and routes, and these are known to have significant effects on, for example, fuel economy.”
The study also found that in order for a trial to be successful the same vehicle type should be used. This directly links to another important issue about platooning in that while Daimler may have decided against it, various other manufacturer are still perusing the idea, Volvo Trucks being one, along with companies focussed on platoon technology rather than vehicle production.
The British government study also concluded that platooning is still 3-5 years away and that much more data is needed before companies could expect to see it implemented across a fleet of commercial vehicles made up of various models. There is, however, another route that companies running commercial fleets can take to improve fuel economy.
Vehicle tracking software has been proven across a variety of commercial fleets to improve fuel usage while also improving the operational efficiency of fleets as a whole.
The use of this technology allows fleet managers to monitor the progress of each individual vehicle within their fleet. As a result, managers can better plan routes for deliveries or pick-ups based on data regarding traffic flow and, therefore, provide much more accurate arrival times for customers.
The system also allows managers to analyse fuel usage based not only on routes taken but also acceleration, breaking, idling and overall driving style. Managers, therefore, have the data to put into place solutions that can directly target problem areas such as harsh acceleration to improve driving performance and fuel economy.
Live tracking of vehicles means that any changes that need to be made unexpectedly, such as adding a pick-up point to the middle of a route, can be done so quickly as finding the closest vehicle is easy to do.
Platooning still has key supporters, in vehicle manufacturers and software developers, who believe that the grouping of vehicles together to run as a unit on the road will provide huge benefits to commercial fleets.
It does seem however that other alternatives are best suited at the current time to improve on key issues such as fuel usage for companies operating commercial fleets.