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Are we ready for autonomous vehicles?

24 July 2019
Panalpina, 2019
Panalpina, 2019

PARC Insight by Dr Emrah Demir, Senior Lecturer in Management Science

The introduction of autonomous vehicles for the transportation of goods represents a major step forward environmentally, socially and economically. Autonomous vehicles reduce emissions and air pollutants, protecting the environment and improving people’s lives.  Socially, these vehicles support the sharing economy and contribute to advancing the sustainable development agenda. Finally, autonomous vehicles also improve the planning of transportation activities, making road transportation more efficient and economical. However, the UK road network was designed for independent drivers and there are many financial, technical and legislative challenges to overcome before driverless vehicles will be a reality.

Fluctuating customer preferences and innovative logistics concepts have already led to smaller batch sizes, higher transport volumes and shorter delivery times.  These improvements have resulted in new challenges for transport operations. Road transportation is gaining importance due to its high flexibility and adaptability. However, increasing road traffic negatively impacts the environment and increases the risk of disruptions, reducing the reliability of road. The future of transportation will be seamless mobility where all modes and vehicles are fully connected and integrated into a single network of information exchange.

What is platooning?

Platooning is the linking of two or more trucks together to create a train, enabled by the Internet of Things (IoT) and automated driving support systems. Truck platoons are effectively “road trains”; instead of railway tracks and signals, these trains are connected through an advanced communication and sensor network.

My research funded by the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (CILT) in the UK has helped me to develop a mathematical programming formulation and a simulation model for a potential use of truck platooning. The results of this research highlight that the truck platooning is of value to both academics and practitioners.

Truck platooning is especially relevant and has a great potential to be implemented by several industries. One possible application of platooning technology is to focus on repositioning of vehicles within the network. This is especially important since there is a high uncertainty with regards to transport demand. Platooning could be an alternative solution to move physical assets in the network and respond the demand the fastest way possible.

Integrated autonomous vehicles can transform the transportation system to make it safer, greener and cheaper.

Benefits of platooning:

Truck platooning technology can be used to control the position of all the vehicles in the platoon, permitting the group to operate extremely closely, thereby reducing wind resistance and decreasing fuel consumption.  The platoon can also operate more smoothly, with less braking and accelerating, which has the potential to reduce CO2 emissions. Platooning also reduces congestion by improving traffic flows and reducing tailbacks.  Overall, this leads to fuel consumption improvements in the entire platoon.

A reduction in overall fuel consumption due to the above will have the added benefit of reducing the cost of deliveries, which currently stands at 30% of the total operating costs of a truck. Lower congestion, substantially shorter commutes during peak periods, and efficient repositioning of vehicles containers in the transport network will also benefit the transport service provider.

Platooning also offers the possibility of improving the reliability of transportation. Platoons therefore have the potential to enhance the efficiency of logistics operations and optimise the labour market, introducing a safer, more efficient flow of freight.

Platooning enables the supply network to be optimised from a higher perspective and allowing for more predictive driving of trucks on the road (i.e., proactive vehicle maintenance).

Future Platooning

The practice of truck platooning will grow dramatically over the next decade, but governmental and business participation is still limited, and the effectiveness of the system remains unexplored. European Union countries are leading the efforts of achieving truck platooning in the near future, with trials ongoing, particularly in the Netherlands.

The Truck Platooning Vision by the European Union highlights the following results.

  • Truck platooning technology can already enable large-scale cross-border trials.
  • Since 2016 and till 2025, the scale of platooning will increase until all European motorways and main roads will be used by truck platoons.
  • Although platooning will initially be possible only between trucks from the same manufacturer, it will not be long until we see integrated platoons of many different makes and models.
  • The number of trucks per platoon will increase.
  • The gap distance between vehicles will reduce, further improving the fuel consumption.

By 2025, truck platooning will be a regular phenomenon on European motorways. So why is the UK not preparing for this technology?

Compared to other European countries (for example, the Netherlands), the United Kingdom has been slow to react to this technology. Despite the UK government’s ambition to see fully self-driving vehicles, without a human operator, on road by 2021, limited progress has been achieved so far.  The UK government needs to provide a clear agenda, beginning with trials following fixed routes in dedicated lanes to fully automated, multi-vehicles platoons in real-life traffic environment. The current UK road network is an obvious challenge, but a challenge that could definitely be overcome through investment in technology.

I really hope that the United Kingdom will also be part of this technological transformation and take advantage of all the potential benefits. There is currently no legislation governing autonomous vehicles on UK roads.

As an ambitious researcher, I would like to see more concrete developments supported by all stakeholders of transportation to see such technological advances on roads. At the very least, truck platooning could be a viable option for improving our transportation networks, and we need to see more emphasis and support from government, industry and academia.

Emrah Demir, Logistics & Operations Management Section, Cardiff Business School, Cardiff University, Wales, United Kingdom,