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Daimler to test automated truck ‘platooning’ tech in Oregon

If you see a convoy of semi trucks driving very close together on the highway, it’s not because their drivers have road rage. Daimler plans to test a concept called “platooning,” in which computer-controlled trucks drive close together to save fuel, on U.S. roads.

In addition to being the parent company of Mercedes-Benz, Daimler is a major player in the commercial truck field. It hopes connectivity and electronic driver aids will allow trucks to drive in a tight formation safely. That could produce aerodynamic benefits that reduce fuel consumption, which is becoming more relevant as companies like Tesla and Cummins plan electric semi trucks. Daimler is experimenting with its own electric trucks, but nothing of comparable size.

Daimler says it has already tested the concept at its Madras, Oregon, proving ground, and has received permission from the Oregon Department of Transportation to take the tests onto public roads. Tests are currently conducted using two Freightliner Cascadia tractor trailers. The company also hopes to test the trucks on select public roads in Nevada.

The system relies on vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication, a Wi-Fi-like transmission medium that allows vehicles to send messages back and forth. The technology is already touted as a potential safety aid for passenger cars because the network can send drivers information about unsafe conditions up ahead, or alert them to the presence of other vehicles that may be in blind spots.

In the Daimler tests, V2V is connected to the trucks’ various electronic driver aids, including adaptive cruise control, lane-keep assist, and autonomous emergency braking. By being able to “talk” to each other via V2V, each truck knows what the other is doing, and can adjust throttle and braking using the electronic driver aids. Daimler claims the digital systems’ reaction times are about 0.2 to 0.3 seconds, while human drivers normally respond no quicker than one second.

Those quick reaction times will be necessary in order to keep trucks that will basically be driving bumper to bumper from crashing into each other. If it can be done safely, “platooning” could increase fuel efficiency by allowing trucks to “draft” each other, decreasing air resistance. The technology could also serve as a stepping stone to autonomous driving.

As with self-driving cars, though, the main obstacle to automated truck platoons will likely be regulations, a Daimler press release said: “When the legal framework is set, Daimler Trucks customers will be able to operate their vehicles in platooning mode.”

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