Opinion: Will Australia ever see platooning?

By: Cobey Bartels


There is an increasing talk of heavy vehicle platooning in Australia, even after a government-backed trial in WA couldn’t go ahead due to our unique operating conditions.

Opinion: Will Australia ever see platooning?
Platooning trials have proven success in the US and Europe, but will it work down under?

 

The trial was announced last year as a partnership between Peloton Technology, the Australian Driverless Vehicle Initiative (ADVI), Telstra, the Western Australian Road Transport Association (WARTA), and the government of Western Australia.

US-company Peloton Technology developed the technology and was set to conduct the trials, testing its two-truck platooning system which promises a minimum 7.5% fuel saving thanks to the wireless linking of the trucks.

What we found out after talking to Cam Dumesny formerly of WARTA and now at Western Roads Federation (WRF), is that the trial didn’t work.

"The trials didn’t work…the technology wasn’t ready for multi-combination," Cam told Owner//Driver

"They might have been ready for a single trailer, but technology issues deferred the trial."

There is talk of the trails recommencing in WA, and despite dates not being confirmed Peloton seem confident Australia is suited to platooning.

More talk came this month at the second International Driverless Vehicle Summit in Adelaide, as Peloton spoke further about the benefits of platooning.

We contacted Peloton Technology to enquire about whether there will be a follow-up trial in Western Australia, but are yet to hear back. 

Is platooning ever going to be viable in Australia, though?

Anyone who’s driven around Australia knows that cars need to be able to overtake road trains along the way, so how would overtaking a platoon of multiple trucks go?

"We already platoon here, and it’s called a road train," Cam reminded us, following up by confirming that platooning and autonomous technologies are still a good thing despite being a little further off.

There is talk of developing separate lanes and even roads dedicated to platooning, to ensure other road users aren’t a part of the mix.

At the very least, it’s being said that additional sensors and connectivity built into the road network will be required.

The question on everyone’s mind, though, is whether the driver labour cost and fuel savings will be great enough to justify the enormous infrastructure and development costs.

It also raises the question of whether investments in rail could deliver similar benefits, especially if autonomous technology could be implemented into trains as it has been in WA.

Last year when we reported on the Peloton trials set for WA, ADVI centre for excellence executive director Rita Excell was was optimistic about the potential benefits of platooning in Australia.

"Australia’s driving conditions and the long distances of our truck routes between urban centres make truck platooning a particularly promising technology to enhance the industry," Rita said.

"In addition, truck platooning mixed with higher levels of automation can bring greater safety, efficiency and productivity to fleets operating on Australia’s extensive network of private roads."

Does the technology work?

Manufacturers are pushing forward with the technology, and the new Tesla electric truck that was unveiled last Friday is said to have both autonomous and platooning functionality built in.

Daimler is one of the key players in the platooning space and in September announced successful trials of its platooning technology.

The trials took place at a Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA) proving ground in Oregon and after the success of the tests, the Oregon Department of Transportation granted permission for on-road testing.

At the time of the trials, DTNA President and CEO Roger Nielsen explained that the technology does not aim to replace drivers, but instead aims to improve safety and efficiency.

Despite successful trials in the US and Europe, the technology has been met with caution by the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development as highlighted in a submission received by a Parliamentary Committee looking at the social issues relating to land-based driverless vehicles.

"Truck platooning, while potentially an efficient way to transport freight, could cause concerns with human drivers about overtaking or road visibility," the department said.

"It should be noted that unlike European countries, heavy vehicles with multiple trailers are widely used in Australia, potentially reducing the relative benefits of automated platooning."

The size of our multi-trailer combinations poses a unique hurdle in Australia, something the deferred trials, if they do take place, will have to address.

Do you think we’ll see widespread use of platooning down under?

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