Peloton’s tech lets truckers play follow the leader to boost fuel economy

Peloton Technologies Semi Truck Platooning
Peloton Technologies

This year’s CES seemed to be all about electric, hydrogen, and autonomous trucks, but there’s a lot more going on in the world of long-haul trucking than that. Consider Peloton Technology, for example. This company, based in Mountain View, California, intends to deliver a technological boost to conventional trucking through its proprietary platooning technology. Other companies are working on similar tech.

“Our approach around technology in the trucking segment was really to look at the various levels of automation and come up with a solution that we think could be applicable quicker than some of the other solutions out there,” said Rod McLane, vice president of marketing and customer success at Peloton Technology. “Our Platoon Pro product is a level one [autonomous] solution. What it does is really allow these semi trucks to travel in close proximity, what we call platoons, with the primary focus being reducing fuel consumption.”

Peloton’s solution allows semi trucks to take advantage of aerodynamics in the same way that racing cars build momentum by getting into a line and “drafting” around a racetrack. Essentially, a low-pressure area is created behind the lead vehicle as it pushes the air aside. By following closely, a string of vehicles can take advantage of that low-pressure area to reduce engine load and increase fuel economy. As a bonus, the lead vehicle gets a little push through the air, too.

“We’ve seen the fuel savings across both trucks averaging around seven to seven-and-a-quarter percent,” McLane told Digital Trends. “Following trucks save about 10 percent and the front truck saves about four-and-a-half percent.”

Dedicated short-range communication

Peloton’s technology is based on a bit of tech called DSRC, an acronym that stands for dedicated Short-range communication. This open-source wireless protocol works around the 5.9 GHz band, which can also be used for Wi-Fi communications. In 1999, the Federal Commuunications Commission dedicated about 75 Mhz of this spectrum exclusively for automotive use, specifically for vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-anything communications.

“DSRC effectively links the two trucks together, sharing data between the two trucks,” McLane said. “We’re tied into the vehicle ECU [engine control unit] …, as well as the braking ECU, so that when the trucks are platooning using this technology, the braking and acceleration of the follow truck is effectively controlled by the front truck.”

DSRC is a little bit controversial, and there are competing technologies under development. However, DSRC offers a few attractive features. DSRC is a low-latency protocol, with a connection speed of about 0.02 seconds. DSRC is also resistant to radio interference and is not degraded severely by weather such as electrical storms.

Think next-level cruise control

Peloton’s technology amounts to a very smart adaptive cruise control system, in which the following truck not only observes a set following distance, but is in communication with the leading truck itself.

“We have a network operations cloud and it effectively determines when and where these trucks can platoon.”

“The driver in that follow truck is able to take his feet off the pedals,” McLane said. “He’s still steering and he’s still controlling the vehicle in terms of the direction, but in terms of the acceleration or braking, that is effectively controlled by that front truck.”

Peloton’s testing indicates that its technology not only works, but it works better than human reaction or radar/camera-based perception.

“Should the front truck driver apply his brake, the rear truck reacts within about a tenth of a second,” McLane said. “That’s faster than a human can react and faster than radar can detect a state change. The rear truck will start slowing down before the front truck in most cases because it’s got that digital linkage. So, as soon as that front truck brakes, the rear truck can brake so that the gap distance never really changes.”

Hooking up

There’s another part of Peloton’s idea that helps make platooning possible. All the trucks available to platoon have to be hooked up to Peloton’s cloud in order to find each other.

“Of course, both trucks in a platoon would need to be equipped with the Peloton technology,” McLane stated. “But in addition to the trucks being linked together, the trucks are also linked to our cloud. We have a network operations cloud, and it effectively determines when and where these trucks can platoon. We really limit platooning to divided highways with limited access, like the traditional on-ramp and off-ramp. We don’t want these trucks to be platooning on back roads where there are cross streets and things like that, where it may put them in an unsafe position where a vehicle pulls out in front of them or something like that.”

There are more limitations in force now, mostly based on safety considerations.

“We don’t allow them to platoon in inclement weather,” McLane explained. “If it’s snowing, or anything like that, or icy and it’s a traction-limiting event, we won’t allow the system to engage. If there’s traffic or road construction, we won’t allow the system to engage. We’ve always tried to put safety as the overriding principle in the technology we apply.”

“The actual speed of the system can be adjusted based on where the trucks are …”

Another factor in hooking up is the prevailing speed, whether that’s the legal speed limit or a corporate maximum imposed by the trucking company.

“We work with the fleets in terms of their speed governing, as well as the local speed limit,” McLane explained. “For example, here in California, the limit for Class A trucks is 55 mph, so we have our trucks here governed to 55 when we’re using them in California. But in Texas it’s 70. So, the actual speed of the system can be adjusted based on where the trucks are, and, again, what the fleets determine to be a maximum. And we can also adjust that gap separation, so we can increase the gap distance between the trucks if it’s a higher-speed situation.”

Saving jobs, at least for now

Because platooning is assisted driving rather than truly autonomous, a driver is still required in each participating truck. Peloton’s program is attractive because it can be installed in the existing truck fleet, enabling substantial fuel savings for the companies involved and not requiring a wholesale change in operations.

Semi trucks driving down a hilly road | Peloton Technologies

“Right now, we’re in 18 states that have changed the legislation to allow for the commercial deployment of platooning,” McLane said. “That’s key because it allows us to deploy this technology today, as opposed to the higher-level automation that’s really more in a testing phase.”

However, when autonomous trucking does come along, Peloton plans to be part of that market, too.

“Part of our strategy from the beginning was that the technology that we’re putting in place today would be a foundation for anything moving forward.” McLane said. “Obviously, we’re looking at other ways to use this technology beyond this initial product as we move forward. But our thought process was that this was a good place to start.”

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