When people think of robot cars, they mostly imagine taking naps, reading a book or phone, or doing work, while the car whisks you to where you want to go. It’s basically a chauffeur for everyone.
But there’s another aspect to self-driving vehicles that doesn’t get as much attention: platooning.
No, not the Charlie Sheen movie. It’s the word for when vehicles can drive in formation on a highway, like geese, via software and hardware technologies, that allow them to tailgate like crazy.
The advantage for other drivers is that it frees up a huge amount of roadway capacity, equivalent in some cases to building a whole new highway (of course, we know that extra capacity just induces more driving in the long term).
But for truckers, it can also mean major fuel savings, which produces environment gains. Mountain View’s Peloton Technology is an early leader in this field. It develops the hardware and software that allow the trucks driving behind the lead vehicle to brake and accelerate automatically to synchronize. As Carolyn Said in the San Francisco Chronicle reported:
Independent tests show the front truck uses 4.5 percent less fuel and the rear one saves 10 percent, Peloton said. Averaging those savings between the pair could result in saving a few thousand dollars per year per truck, Switkes said. Peloton’s pricing is a subscription based on a fraction of the actual cost savings that trucks achieve.
“That adds up quickly for a fleet with 30,000 trucks,” said [Josh Switkes, Peloton CEO and co-founder] said. The types of big rigs it’s targeting rack up 130,000 miles a year. “For a heavy truck, in a year and a half you spend as much on fuel as you did to buy the truck” — some $130,000 to $170,000.
Peloton’s name refers to a group of racing bicyclists who ride in close formation to reduce wind resistance, which is somewhat ironic given the dangers that trucks and other vehicles pose to biking — not to mention that biking is a far more environmentally friendly (and healthy) way to get around.
Still, our society needs trucking for goods movement. So technology solutions that can reduce fuel consumption and therefore pollution, as well as reduce accidents and the need for more highway expansion, are something we should encourage.