BLAINVILLE, QUE. — Three Volvo transport trucks “platoon” in circles at the National Research Council (NRC) test track here, to take the critical next step toward a fully autonomous driving future.
With systems that allow each vehicle to know what the other is doing, they can follow each other only metres apart and brake and accelerate as a pack. It’s as if they are physically connected.
But well before autonomous vehicles actually arrive — perhaps in a decade — platooning could provide significant real-world-right-now benefits such as fewer collisions, improved traffic flow and reduced stress on operators.
The big selling point now is an improvement in fuel efficiency when the vehicles tuck in closely to reduce aerodynamic drag, “the same way that motorsports racers and cyclists do,” says NRC Group Leader Brian McAuliffe.
Look for these systems to come first in large commercial vehicles, those that could offer the biggest payoff in reduced operating costs and lowered greenhouse gas emissions.
It is this benefit that lured trucking-company CEOs and government officials to Blainville for two weeks in late 2016. Volvo transport trucks and their 30,000-kilogram loads circled, lap after lap, separated by as little as a half second, which equates to 17.5 metres.
SIGNIFICANT FUEL SAVINGS
Early findings suggest at least a six-per-cent fuel saving for a three-truck formation versus the same trucks running independently, says McAuliffe. At least seven per cent when the standard trailers are swapped for more aerodynamic units with side and rear fairings.
Still-bigger gains are possible in winter when dense, cold air increases wind resistance.
For an industry with millions of trucks burning an average 33.6 l/100 km, according to a 2012 U.S. report, the prospects are enticing.
“Six per cent at a minimum is just phenomenal. Four or five per cent is fantastic [as a savings tar-get], and I think a lot of carriers would take that,” says Canadian Trucking Alliance spokesman Marco Beghetto.
But a closed track, Beghetto says, is a long way from public highways, which is a point the researchers readily concede.