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Truck platooning has long been discussed in conversations about the industry’s future, but what will it take to make this technology a reality on the nation’s highways? Not only does this emerging technology enable paired trucks to brake and accelerate in unison to save fuel, but could also increase driver productivity. The concept has been pursued by various tech start-ups, truck manufactures, major industry suppliers and government officials. So why is platooning still in the testing phase? Host Seth Clevenger sits down with government reporter, Eleanor Lamb, to find out how public officials will react to this roll-out. He also talks to Cetin Mericli, CEO and Founder of Locomation, a company that is actively implementing platooning practices.


Cetin Mericli is CEO & Founder of Locomation. Previously, he led teams of researchers and commercialization experts at Carnegie Mellon University’s National Robotics Engineering Center over many projects over the past decade. As one of the world’s foremost experts in robotics and AI with two decades of experience, Cetin has published over 40 scientific papers.

Eleanor Lamb started working as a staff reporter for Transport Topics in July 2017. She covers a variety of issues, including state and local government affairs, infrastructure funding and trucking research. Her work has taken her all over the country. Two favorite destinations are Kansas City, Mo., and Boulder City, Nev. She regularly appears on Transport Topics Radio. 

Cetin Mericli

Eleanor Lamb

EP. 1

Brought to you by:

Guest One, Mike Roeth

Episode Transcript

Roadsigns S4E1.mp3

 Dan Ronan: From Transport Topics in Washington D.C., this is RoadSigns. Here is your host, Seth Clevenger.

Seth Clevenger: Thank you for listening to RoadSigns, the podcast series from Transport Topics that explores the trends and technologies that are shaping the future of trucking. In this episode we're going to take a close look at the path ahead for truck platooning. This emerging technology combines automation with vehicle-to-vehicle communications to enable trucks to brake and accelerate in unison on the highway, at least in the near-term. Each vehicle will continue to have a professional driver in the cab but the technology would allow the vehicles to travel together in tight convoys, significantly shorter following distances to help save fuel. This concept has existed for many years now. We have seen numerous platooning tests over the years including large-scale demonstrations on public roads and even some initial fleet trials. This technology has been pursued by tech startups, truck manufacturers and major industry suppliers as well as government officials both in the U.S. and internationally. Despite all this interest platooning has not yet advanced beyond this testing and development stage in the broad commercial availability. So what will it take for this vision of truck platooning to become a reality on the nation's highways and when opportunity does reach the market, what form will it take? We'll set out to answer those questions in this episode.

In the past much of the conversation about truck platooning has revolved around fuel savings generated by the shorter following distances as well as on road safety. But more recently that conversation has begun to shift toward higher levels of automated driving that could yield significant benefits for driver and carrier productivity. If the driver in the following truck in a platoon can completely disengage from driving and rest in the sleeper you can see a ton of potential for reducing fatigue and improving efficiency. Of course, as we discuss automated driving we also have to ask ourselves whether government regulators, law enforcement and the motoring public will be ready for it. Later in the program. I'll bring in my colleague Eleanor Lamb, a government reporter at Transport Topics to discuss how public officials are reacting to the emergence of automated trucks. But first, we're excited to welcome Cetin Mericli, co-founder and CEO of Locomation, a Pittsburgh-based startup company that has entered the race to develop and deploy a truck with unique technology. Thanks for joining us, Cetin.

Cetin: Thanks for having me, Seth. It's a great pleasure to be here.

Seth: So the concept of truck platooning, where two or more trucks connect wirelessly to form a convoy, has been a topic of discussion in the trucking industry for quite a while now but Locomation is really taking, I think, a very interesting approach to this technology. So in a nutshell your company is developing a two-truck platooning system where the following truck can drive itself with no input. That means the driver in that truck can actually step away from driving it and even go off duty. But, of course, you can explain this a lot better than me, Cetin. So how does your system work?

 Cetin: You actually explained it quite well but let me elaborate a little bit and give an example Assume that we have two trucks, as you said, and you have two drivers and the drivers drive the trucks completely manually just like they did today to get to the urban areas, to get through the congested traffic, etc., up until they're on the freeway. Once they're on the freeway, they engage our system. Assume that there's a big green button and you press the button and now the two trucks form a convoy. Once the system is engaged the driver in the front truck remains in control, in fact, assumes the control of the entire convoy and the driver and the follower truck now can leave the driver's seat and go off duty and go rest, sleep, read a book or browse the internet. And at that point the follower truck turns into proper fully autonomous truck with the only job of knowing where the lead truck is and be able to follow the lead truck.

Seth: Yeah. So that's a really interesting approach to this. And when you think about this, you  know, while that system's engaged the driver of that lead truck is effectively driving both vehicles at the same time on the highway while the other driver in the rear vehicle is resting. So you can really think of this is as an advanced form of team driving but with two vehicles. So how would a team driving concept work with this platooning system?

Cetin: That’s a perfect analogy to our system. It's exactly like traditional team driving where you have two drivers taking turns driving the same truck, in our system that you still have two drivers taking turn driving a convoy of two trucks. So you are doing the traditional team driving with an extra truckload of freight that comes with you, on top of that in traditional team driving two drivers have to stay in the same cab and share the same personal space. In our version, the drivers get their own cabs. So while benefiting from the parts of team driving they also can have their own personal spaces and have a little bit more comfortable driving experience.

Seth: And, of course, you have a huge productivity gain from multiple vehicles instead of one. And that's where I want to kind of take the conversation next. When we think about the business case for turning much of the early conversation about this and the industry is really focused on fuel economy improvements because you have a shorter following distance is more aerodynamic. You can say fuel. But with Locomation, you know, we really are looking at that potential for some very significant gains in fleet productivity and driver productivity. And would you say, you know, that productivity gain is actually the primary return on investment for a platooning system like the one you're working on?

Cetin: Absolutely. In fact, if we have we list three pillars of value proposition brought by our system first and foremost is to improve asset utilization and driver utilization. That's definitely number one. The second one is improved safety through assistance of the autonomy. And the third one is of course the fuel savings. We cannot overlook the fuel savings that have some significant numbers there. But then you look at the bottom line, and look at the dollar values the benefits or the savings coming from improved asset utilization and improved driver time actually is about a magnitude higher than what you will gain from the fuel efficiency.

Seth:  Sure. And can you quantify at all what types of productivity gain you might see if the carrier is able to rule the system out just how much better in terms of utilization and of both the equipment and driver time do you really see here?

Cetin: So when you look at the industry norms today the average utilization time per day is about seven and a half hours. And with our system in an ideal case, we like to be able to push it up to 10 and a half hours per drive or shift which is actually the physical limit what a driver can do. And on a per-track basis we would like to see numbers close to 22 hours a day or even 23 hours a day except for some better lights predisposed to inspections and some few refueling activities. Of course, the actual realizations will depend on the actual routes and the actual scheduling system per fleet, but the theoretical gains are there.

Seth: That's fascinating. But I mean when you think about how you could really potentially reap the productivity benefits of a system like this there's also an important question to answer from a regulatory standpoint and that really deals with hours of service. You know if the driver of the following truck is resting in the sleeper berth will that driver be considered off duty? Or will it still count toward the driving time under hours-of-service rules? You know, it really is a, I think, a central question and I want to understand Locomation’s approach to that question and how will the regulations need to change to take full advantage of a platooning system like this.

Cetin: For the particular hours-of-service concern that you brought up, the regulation is already there. In fact, there is a very recent ruling declaring the sleeper berth time non-compatible, so the drivers in the sleeper berth and are not actively driving are already considered off duty. Having said that, most fleets honor the time spent in the cab and end up paying the driver a fraction of what a full-time driving activity would pay. But in our case when you look at the overall labor efficiency of our point of view, we are bundling two trucks together and in the team driving scenario that normally would require four drivers to take two trucks to say a thousand-mile route. And in our case you only need two drivers to take two trucks so you actually have the luxury to compensate the resting driver a little bit better than the industry standard today while still seeing huge improvements in your bottom line. Short answer to your question again, to wrap up the regulations of hours of service for that particular matter is already in place. There are a couple of other flexibilities required in the hours of service. Such as we would like to have the drivers be able to spend the first half an hour or 45 minutes driving through the urban miles but then be able to take a five-, six-hour rest and then resume driving — that requires some modifications in the current FMCSA rules and FMCSA already moving toward that direction. And we have active conversations with them.

Seth: I see. OK. It's a really interesting aspect of this, of course, because these rules and regulations were not written with platooning in mind. So it's a new technology and there are certainly some finer points of regulation like hours a service that do need to be looked at, and it's good to hear that those conversations are ongoing.

Cetin: Of course, when you look at the current hours-of-service regulations it's all written in the pen and paper era without the digitalization, without any kind of data stream from the trucks and truck driving is a very serious, very critical job that we need to make sure that everybody is safe all the time. So now with the advances in the technology the incoming data streams through the electronic logging devices and the advances in new technologies like Locomation is developing now we have actually a quantifiable hard evidence that they can present to the regulators and ask for some flexibilities. So we will see that gaining more momentum as we go forward.

Seth: Now for Locomation initial platooning system, there will still be a driver in the follower truck even if that driver is off duty there's still a person in the vehicle even if they're not actively driving. But, when you look ahead do you anticipate someday reaching a point where that follower truck is really becomes an unmanned drone truck and you have a driver still in the lead vehicle but not the real vehicle. And can the platoon expand from two to three or even more trucks. So understand that we may be getting a little bit ahead of ourselves here. But what do you see as the path forward for pursuing technology in the years ahead?

Cetin: That is an excellent question and if we are on put up on point observation that's indeed in on our road map we are starting initially with two trucks and two drivers, convoys. But as we move forward one of the first things that will happen is on select routes where the nature of the route itself permits. We will see a two-truck single-driver convoys for certain segments and then we will expand the length of the convoy from two trucks to three trucks to be able to schedule more across the industry and have mixed and matched convoys going to the same direction with only some of the trucks will have some human drivers maybe just one driver as the leads in the lead position or maybe two drivers but three trucks. The third truck being a drone following.


Seth: I also want to circle back to the question of fuel efficiency gains that I mentioned earlier and you know as I mentioned a lot of the early conversation about platooning has centered on saving fuel with some estimating in the range of 10% savings for the real truck but actually at the beginning of this year. Martin Daum, who is the head of Daimler Global Truck Division, did cast some doubt on the real-world fuel economy gains that you can really achieve based on their testing. So Cetin, I want to get your take on what's really achievable in terms of fuel economy gains from opportunity.

Cetin: We believe with Locomation’s approach of fully autonomous followers, we are able to get the gap distance, the separation distance, between two trucks to a very narrow separation. This narrow space can be really discouraging or maybe even make it impossible to cut in and at what time there last sighting was the cut is resulting the follower track to first slow down and then have to accelerate to catch the convoy and that reacceleration erasing most of the fuel gains. In Locomation’s approach we don't have to slow down then accelerate, instead we can maintain a very smooth cruising all over the platooning segment and according to our projections we'll be able to get the estimated fuel savings with our system.

Seth: And what would be a typical following distance with your system and would you be able to project a rough fuel economy savings percentage understanding but there's a lot of variables?

Cetin: We are aiming to hit seven or eight meters separation distance at highway speeds. When you go fully commercial. Of course in the initial testing scenarios we will start a larger gap distances and over time make it smaller. But for the commercial deployment scenario we are shooting for seven or eight meters or roughly at 20 feet separation distance and at those distances we should be able to see on average 8% per truck fuel savings which you decompose it. It's about 5 to 6 percent for the lead truck and about 10 to 12 percent for the follower truck.

Seth: Now before we continue I do want to rewind a little bit and you know, talk a little bit about your background and also how you started Locomation, so take us back to the beginning. What really sparked your interest in truck platooning and why did you decide to start this company and how did it all come together?

Cetin: My fascination with AI and robotics started about at 20 years ago and since then, I devoted my career in understanding how to make robots — mobile robots — more intelligent and more useful. And I've always been fascinated with the systems engineering aspect of building entire systems to address real-world problems. About 10 years ago, I joined Carnegie Mellon University and I spent a good part of the last decade at National Robotics Engineering Center which is the applied RI branch of Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon. There I met most of my co-founders there and they spent a lot of our time, collectively over a hundred years working on autonomous vehicles. In fact, we've even built military truck convoys in the past. And being around heavy machinery all these times, we've always kept an eye on the trucking and transportation and we've always felt that trucking actually has the biggest potential for the prime first application of autonomy at commercial scale. So about two years ago we decided to take all of our expertise and know-how and apply to a bit of well-defined commercial problem that we believe we can actually build a product in a short timeframe and use that product to reach higher levels of benefits later on. That's how we decided to start Locomation and that's how we decided to focus on trucking and trucking as the first step.

Seth: Well, thanks for that. And speaking of this pathway to the truck platooning, where does Locomation stand today on its path toward launching a commercial product? Tell us a little bit about the technical trials and on-road testing that you're working on right now.

Cetin: We have been quietly working very diligently on our technology and we started testing our tracks on closed test tracks a couple of months ago. And right now we are in the process of doing the final integration and final shakeout tests later in September we will actually start doing some public road tests. We have an assigned trial agreement with a top carrier that we will announce separately. So we will start pulling commercial loads as part of their operations someday and Southwest as early as the end of September early October timeframe.

Seth: All right we'll certainly watch for that. It will be very interesting to learn more about. As that comes to fruition and you kind of looking ahead how soon might we see a broad commercial launch of this platooning system, not just trials but reaching a point where a fleet can actually go order and install your technology and deploy your technology?

Cetin: We are able to start shipping the very first commercial units sometime in the calendar year of 2021. So it's really around the corner.

Seth: And how will you take this technology to market? Do you envision this as something that will have to be factory installed by the truck manufacturers? Or will there be an aftermarket opportunity at least in the beginning? What is your strategy for going to market?

Cetin: So there are really two lanes of development there in one lane — eventually in the summer at some point in the future this technology will be blended in the OEM and AI technologies. But that's a longer play in the short term. We want it to be really on the market as soon as possible and as wide of an audience as possible. So we are developing our system as an aftermarket retrofit to get that can be bolted on customer trucks and we envision that from this initial aftermarket get designed we will have a gradual path towards deeper and deeper integration with the existing OEM designs. But initially we are we are going to be an aftermarket retrofit.

Seth: OK. Finally before I let you go I also want to ask you to look ahead and share your thoughts on how trucking might be different, say 10 years from now. You know, some of the big trends we see today are of course automated driving. You can think of platooning as part of that. Also a move toward the first introduction of electric trucks and of course we've seen connected vehicles be a broad trend for some time now. But how much of that do you think will be a reality a decade from now?

Cetin: I think we will see bits and pieces of all so we will definitely see some early generation electric trucks into shorthaul parts or the last mile or less, a couple of tens of miles, delivery parts. We will definitely see a lot more connected vehicles with different levels of automation and you will definitely see some automated driving. I believe in the next decade we will start seeing some fully driverless trucks on select routes but I don't think it's going to be a blanket solution and we will not have every single semi-truck driving itself with no human presence on the cap in the next decade. So there will be progress all over but we are not going to hit the eventual very long term goals in the next 10 years.

Seth: All this stuff takes time, of course it takes time. Usually it's more of an evolution than a revolution but we are on the cusp of a lot of very interesting developments and trucking to say the least.

Cetin:  Absolutely and evolution is not a very bad thing as long as you can be cognizant and resourceful about embracing evolution and make sure that you are getting the best commercial benefits out of what is possible and available today rather than just waiting for at a multi decade research experiment to find out.

Seth: You know, this has really been a fascinating conversation but I think we've reached a pretty good stopping point here so I just want to say thanks again for joining us and ensuring all your thoughts and all the very interesting stuff that you're working on at Locomation.

Cetin: It's been a delight and great pleasure. Thanks, though. Thanks so much again for having me.


Seth: Next on RoadSigns I'd like to welcome my colleague Eleanor Lamb, a government reporter at Transport Topics. Thanks for joining the program. So we've been discussing the development of platooning technology during this episode but now I'd really like to take a look at the regulatory environment for automation. So Eleanor, you spend a lot of time covering the Department of Transportation and regulatory agencies like FMCSA, generally speaking how would you describe public officials’ overall stance toward automated vehicle technology within the trucking industry? Do you get the sense that they're optimistic, cautious or maybe a bit of both?

Eleanor: I think a little bit of both. I think we've seen a lot of interest in preparation from federal agencies, which is a good thing. It's better than turning a blind eye, it's better than pretending autonomous technologies are not an element in the future. We've seen in October Secretary Elaine Chao released autonomous vehicles 3.0. That's the agency's guidelines over autonomous technologies. We've seen the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and Nissan both put out requests for comment regarding automated driving systems. So you know on the whole we've seen an interest from federal agencies to learn more about the potential of this technology and any concerns there.

Seth: OK. And you mentioned the A.V. 3.0 guidelines, the DOT released those last year. What were some of the biggest takeaways from that document?

Eleanor: Well some of them, you know, not super surprisingly there is a priority for safety so there's no sense that they're going to be regulating any technologies that are not safe for people out on the roads. They have also stressed the need to potentially modernize regulations, which is important. You know, they're showing that they recognize that they might need to be flexible as these technologies emerge. One thing I will say is that Secretary Chao during that announcement event of A.V. 3.0 she acknowledges that some people have raised public concern over security and privacy when it comes to these technologies. She said that nearly three-fourths of American drivers have expressed fear and anxiety about riding in a self-driving vehicle.

And that's to say nothing about driving beside or behind a self-driving vehicle. So, you know, she's met with Silicon Valley leaders to kind of, you know, first of all learn but also to spread awareness and help as far as public image goes the understanding that these technologies will be certainly well-studied.

Seth: Public acceptance is definitely going to be a big part of this whole thing, was there any doubt some public officials definitely are aware of that, they're acutely aware of that. Getting a little bit more specific, are there any other new developments at the federal level for automated trucks so some of the agencies?

Eleanor: Well, you know, the agency that regulates trucks, FMCSA, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, they were one of two agencies this past May that set out a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking requesting input on automated driving systems which encompasses lane departure warning systems but also truck platooning. They're requesting comment because they understand that this is a regulatory area that may require some adjustment in the future and they're looking to learn more about the differences between human and automated drivers and how that translates to the vehicles and the transportation environment that they will have to regulate. So you know we're still in that window for them collecting public comment but once they do it'll be interesting to see if them and NHTSA make any changes regarding policy.

Seth: Sure. And let's also take a moment to talk about driver hours of service and of course this is a very hot topic in general in the industry right now. But within the context of automated vehicles and especially all automated trucks this is a very important question moving forward in those A.V. 3.0 guidelines duty specifically says that hours of service regulations would not apply to vehicles that don't require a human operator. But of course it's not quite so cut and dried for the partially automated vehicles that we're likely to see in the near term. So Eleanor, what are your thoughts on how regulators might handle hours of service in cases where the driver controls the vehicle sometimes, but will be completely disengaged from driving at other times?

Eleanor: Well, you know, so I can see this as being potentially a squeaky wheel policywise in the future because hours of service rules are important. You know, they dictate how much rest a driver needs to get which then determines how alert that driver is on the road. But if a driver is let's say asleep while an automated system is engaged. You know they will have to iron out how asleep is that person allowed to be? You know, do they have to be somewhat alert in case something goes wrong and they have to override the system? I personally, if I was in a cab of a truck that was driving itself, I wouldn't want to close my eyes I would want to be there to see if anything went wrong. So I think that's going to take a little bit of ironing out in the future.

Seth: Right. And the policy would have to match of course the level of automation of the vehicle itself. And we see we're going to see a gradation of different levels of automation and perhaps different levels will have to be treated differently. So there's a lot of complexity and of course none of these rules were written with any of these technologies in mind, right, and exist. So that is, you know, that is the challenge that, you know, the industry that technology developers and regulators will have moving forward. Now for platooning, we've also seen some legislative and regulatory action at the state level. There are some states that do have pretty specific following distance requirements and of course that can be a problem for platooning where the following distances can be very short due to the vehicle-to-vehicle and an automatic braking technology. So where does that stand right now on the state level?

Eleanor: Well, you know, it's interesting stuff. Some states like Ohio have pursued autonomous and platooning activities at a testing level. But I will say this. Some states that don't even have truck platooning activities going on have already enacted legislation pertaining to autonomous trucks. Louisiana's autonomous truck rules just went into effect August 1st and they're not alone. There are plenty of states say, I think maybe about half of all the states, have enacted autonomous truck legislation. So it shows that it's something that they're interested in even if they're not quite there yet, which is a good sign.

Seth: Yeah. And we've been talking a lot about regulation here but of course law enforcement is also a big part of this. When the rubber meets the road, so you can imagine how a highway patrol officer might react to seeing a truck on the highway and the driver’s resting in the sleeper berth and there's no one behind the wheel or even if there's just a very short following distance in a truck platoon that can look like an extreme case of tailgating to an observer. So how much education and cooperation will need to happen among all the parties involved — technology developers, the regulators and law enforcement to have a smooth rollout?

Eleanor: Tons and tons of cooperation that education will have to happen? Surely inspectors alongside the road will have to be trained to look for certain signs, as you mentioned, and they're going to learn about that from the people who are developing this technology. So that's going to require those tech people to be onboard. And then, of course, regulators are going to have to be involved as well because they're going to have to be the ones studying and setting policy for these vehicles.

Seth: Well, I really appreciate all your insights, Eleanor, as always but I think that's a good place to wrap it up here. Thanks again for joining us.

Eleanor: I've really enjoyed it.

Seth: As we draw to a close let's go back and reconsider our original question: What will it take for truck platooning to become a reality as we consider this technology? It's important to remember that fleets will only adopt it if they see a clear return on investment. And the case for platooning becomes much stronger if it's not just a fuel economy play but also a way to enhance safety, boost productivity and potentially reduce labor costs. Looking ahead, there's a lot of room for this concept to evolve over time. As platooning technology advances the convoys could expand to three or more trucks and the following trucks may even become unmanned drones that automatically follow a lead truck piloted by a professional driver. However, each step forward also adds to the technical challenge for the developers of these systems and for the technology to take hold … government regulators and the motoring public must accept it. To that point, platooning could be a more palatable way to introduce unmanned trucks on the highway because they would be dependent on a lead vehicle that still has a driver behind the wheel. If platooning does indeed reach the point where the driver and the follower truck can go off duty or even starts to incorporate unmanned trucks, this technology may start to help solve the industry's most pressing challenge: tecruiting and retaining drivers. To be clear, professional drivers will remain absolutely essential to trucking for decades to come. But the industry could begin to put a dent in the driver shortage by enabling those drivers to become more productive in supporting them with more advanced technology. Only time will tell how successful or widespread opportunity may eventually become but the potential benefits of full platooning expand significantly when the return on investment is built not on fuel economy alone but also on safety and driver productivity.

The next episode of RoadSigns will continue the conversation about how various forms of automated driving could change the trucking industry in the years ahead. Until then, I'm Seth Clevenger. Thank you for listening.

Guest One, Mike Roeth