History was made as FPInnovations' transportation division PIT Group, Transport Canada, Auburn University, and Minimax Express Transportation collaborated to perform Canada's first ever on-road commercial vehicle platoon trial.
The successful highway platooning tests took place between October 29 and November 2 on highways around Montreal, La Tuque, Trois-Rivières and Blainville, Quebec. The platoon consisted of two heavy duty transport trucks. Truck platooning is an emerging fuel-saving technology in which the trucks, driven in a convoy, are linked by a computer system that maintains the desired distance between trucks, as well as controls acceleration and braking, reacting faster than a driver usually can. Drivers were at the wheels of both trucks the entire time, but in the future, only one driver will be at the wheel of the lead truck followed by automated trucks. However, that technology is several years away from being a reality.
''PIT Group is a leader in the testing and integration of new technologies and this test is another example of that. We're very pleased with the preliminary results and we're convinced they will lead to other breakthroughs in this field in the near future," said Edouard Proust, a PIT Group engineer.
The technology, designed by Alabama's Auburn University mechanical engineering department, has already been successfully tested on highways in the United States. A minimum distance of 20 m was kept between the two trucks, which allows a passenger vehicle to safely cut in between the trucks. The platooned trucks disassembled at highway entrances and exits. In all, the truck platoon travelled approximately 1000 km on highways with regular vehicle traffic.
"We've driven the trucks under different weather conditions before but this was a first for us driving in a combination of rain, ice and snow," said James Johnson, a research engineer at Auburn University. "The automated braking and acceleration worked well in the weather conditions and we're pleased with how the trucks performed throughout the testing."
To address safety concerns, escort vehicles led and followed the platooned trucks and system engineers from Auburn University accompanied both drivers, who received prior training. The test team was also in constant radio communication with the drivers. The platooning system combines sensors, measurements from a radar, and GPS data with other information such as brake and throttle status shared over dedicated short-range radio communications (DSRC).
''Auburn's system is very reliable and we were able to spend most of our time on the road with the platooning mode engaged," says Proust. "This is a great achievement. It's a little soon to make a conclusion on the data that was gathered but the system reacted properly to vehicle cut-ins and to road conditions.''
The goal of truck platooning is twofold: aerodynamic drag is reduced on all the trucks leading to significant fuel efficiency on highways, as well as a reduction in tailpipe emissions. Eventually, the technology will lead to automated following trucks, reducing the number of drivers needed by transport companies, which have been struggling for years with a shortage of skilled drivers and is showing no signs of abating.
"We've been in business for the past 28 years and the issue of recruiting drivers has never been so real," says Yves Poirier, president of Minimax Express Transportation. "We've had to refuse business opportunities due to a lack of drivers. Our industry needs to find a way to attract new workers.''
Truck platooning is not yet legal in Canada but testing of the technology is permitted in certain provinces such as Quebec. Some American states such as Georgia and Tennessee have already legalized platooning with drivers at the wheel. "Following the feedback from these preliminary tests, Transport Canada will be circulating a proposal later this year for developing national safety guidelines for truck platooning trials," added Jeff Patten, chief of road research and development at Transport Canada.
"We believe the testing we performed in conjunction with our Canadian partners helped us move forward in validating the technology," said David Bevly, Auburn University mechanical engineering professor and director of the GPS and Vehicle Dynamics Laboratory. "Specifically, it provided us with a unique opportunity to test in conditions that were new to us, and we're grateful for the assistance of Transport Canada and FPInnovations. We look forward to working with them again."
After the success of the first highway platooning tests, PIT Group will continue highway testing while also working with the company's forestry division on testing the technology on forest roads to address the chronic labour shortage in that industry as well.