Truck platooning moving freight into the future
With 72 percent of goods in the U.S. transported by trucks, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, it’s becoming more important than ever to figure out safer and more efficient ways to move them.
One potential solution is truck platoons — a group or convoy of closely spaced vehicles — which are closer to becoming a reality thanks to advancements in connected and autonomous vehicle technology.
Here to investigate the future of truck platoons are Illinois Center for Transportation and Illinois Department of Transportation in their joint project, “R27-203: Truck Platooning on Illinois Flexible Pavements” (vol. I and II).
Imad Al-Qadi, Bliss Professor of Engineering at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and director of ICT, leads the effort with Brian Hill and Charles Wienrank, IDOT engineers of HMA operations and pavement design, respectively.
The project builds on a parallel collaboration with and support from the Center for Connected and Automated Transportation, “Optimization of Lateral Position of Autonomous Trucks.”
The ICT-IDOT effort is a “first step” in determining the impact truck platoons — which have the potential to reduce fuel consumption and improve safety — may have on Illinois’ highways.
The challenge? Those platoons may create additional damage to pavements if spacing between trucks is decreased and trucks consistently travel across the same spot.
Here researchers seek to find the optimal platoon design to minimize fuel consumption as well as damage to flexible pavements — roadways surfaced with bituminous materials that are designed to bend under traffic loads.
“Finding this balance means we need to optimize the platooning distance, the number of vehicles in a platoon as well as the vehicles’ lateral positions on the pavement when they are driving,” Al-Qadi said.
To calculate platoons’ potential impact on flexible pavements, the team built models with several scenarios, comparing the performance of those with fully human-driven trucks to those with partial or fully autonomous platoons.
They found that channelized platoon traffic could increase rutting and cracking significantly if traffic location is not optimized.
The team also identified and calculated the percentage of roadways in Illinois that have the potential to support truck platoons to help the state better prepare for implementation.
“This is the first study of its kind to identify the platoonable sections in a state,” Al-Qadi said. “Of the roads in the state of Illinois, around 83 and 96 percent are platoonable during peak and off-peak hours, respectively, when trucks are spaced 65 feet apart.”
“We now have a very good idea about how platoons are going to impact the state of Illinois from a structural point of view, and the state should now be ready to develop and adapt guidelines regarding platooning,” he added.
All in all, autonomous truck platoons are one step closer thanks to the team’s efforts.
“Connected and autonomous (i.e. driverless) vehicles may seem to be something that is still in the very distant future, but there have been many demonstrations to prove that the technology is viable,” Hill and Wienrank said. “With current truck driver shortages, platoons of trucks with a lead vehicle and autonomous trailing vehicles may become a reality sooner rather than later.”
“Further research is needed to determine the applicability of truck platooning in Illinois from a safety perspective,” they added.
Truck platoons are also key to ICT’s efforts to build the Illinois Autonomous and Connected Track, a multimodal, high-speed autonomous and connected vehicle track.
“One of the most important things that drives I-ACT compared to other facilities across the country is the focus on freight and the ability to drive at highway speeds up to 75 miles per hour,” Al-Qadi said. “I-ACT is the ideal place for advancing platooning technology.”
“Platooning is at the forefront of freight research in the future,” he added, “so I-ACT will allow us to test the connectivity and autonomy of trucks in a controlled environment and, at the same time, try to develop protocols and advance platooning technology.”
Pending legislative approval, Al-Qadi expects connected platoons, which are already being tested, “on the highway in the next couple of years” and autonomous platoons “starting after five years.”