DUSSELDORF, GERMANY — Daimler Trucks has taken its leading-edge status one rather large step forward with the introduction of its Highway Pilot Connect platooning system.
In a demonstration here today, three semi-autonomous Mercedes-Benz Actros tractors pulled their trailers down the A52 autobahn in a platoon formation — 15 meters or 49 ft apart — and eventually into the massive hall where some 300 journalists had been assembled for the occasion.
It’s a world first, of course. We’ve seen platooning demonstrations before, going back several decades in fact, but never with semi-autonomous trucks.
Highway Pilot Connect is based on the existing Highway Pilot system that Daimler showed off in 2014 with its Future Truck 2025 program, the first semi-autonomous heavy truck to hit the road. That was dramatic but it was on a closed German highway. It was followed last May with the introduction by Daimler Trucks North America of the Freightliner Inspiration Truck which travelled down some very public roads in Nevada. And it was licensed to do so, also a world first.
The basis of Highway Pilot Connect is networking between vehicles and precise awareness of the surroundings. It’s been under test since October 2015 in a standard Actros tractor operating on public roads in Germany.
Compared to the Highway Pilot, the latest system has an additional technical function for electronic vehicle docking. Communication between vehicles is made possible by an onboard telematics platform. A specific V2V (vehicle to vehicle) communication module using a special WiFi standard reserved exclusively for automotive use enables direct data transfer between the trucks. As many as 10 information ‘packets’ are exchanged between the platooned trucks every second. A similar connection exists between the trucks and their surroundings by way of a V2I (vehicle to infrastructure) exchange of information.
As many as 10 semi-autonomous trucks can be connected in one lengthy ‘train’. The vehicles are equipped with both linear and lateral guidance systems. Although they’re connected to each other in the platoon, they can each be operated independently. Today’s demonstration showed what happens when a car enters the space between trucks in order to take a highway exit. In that case the following truck automatically backed off, and the one behind it did the same. Once the car had fled the scene, the trucks gradually caught up to the lead vehicles and assumed the 15-meter gaps again. It was entirely seamless.
We also saw what happens when the lead truck has to pull off a panic stop. With no driver intervention — but likely much surprise — the two following trucks braked simultaneously. The system reacts in 0.10 seconds, much faster than a human could. At 80 km/h that equates to reacting in just 2.2 meters instead of 30.
Daimler says there’s a substantial saving in fuel economy of about 7% overall for a three-truck platoon (2% for the lead truck, 11% for the one in the middle, and 9% for the last). As well, the three tractor-trailer units take up about half as much road space as three non-platooned rigs would require, assuming the 50-meter gaps that German law demands.
The theme of the event was actually not platooning, rather it was connectivity, and Dr Wolfgang Bernhard, member of the Board of Management of Daimler AG with responsibility for Daimler Trucks & Buses, sees the truck as the center of a broad network.
“We are connecting the truck with the internet,: he said, “making it the mobile data center of the logistics network. It connects all those involved in goods: drivers, schedulers, fleet operators, workshops, manufacturers and insurance companies or authorities. They receive information in real time which was previously unavailable: about the condition of the tractor unit and semitrailer, traffic and weather conditions, the parking availability at motorway service stations, rest areas and much more.”
“Our trucks fully connect with their environment, becoming part of the internet and continuously sending and receiving information. All those involved in the logistical process can use these real-time data for their needs. In the future it will e.g. be possible to reduce waiting times while loading and unloading, reduce paperwork and avoid traffic jams. With flash updates over the air or automated transfer of inbound time for trucks heading to the service point maintenance time can be reduced significantly. In this way we are considerably improving the performance of goods transport as a whole. An enormous opportunity to intelligently cope with the growing volume of goods traffic. We intend to use it,” said Bernhard.
Backing up that commitment, the company is establishing as of April 1 a new business unit called Digital Solutions & Services, headed by Dr. Daniela Gerd Tom Markotten. It will direct all activities concerning digital applications for Mercedes-Benz commercial vehicles.