FPInnovations held the world's first platooning tests on forestry roads in Rivière-aux-Rats, near La Tuque, QC, last week, paving the way towards the use of autonomous vehicles.
This test, done in collaboration with Auburn University, Resolute Forest Products and Transport Canada, proved the technique can reduce fuel consumption by up to 10%.
At the head of a curve on a forestry road, a first truck shows up, followed by another only 20 metres behind. All camera lenses are focused on the strange scene as the vehicles increase their speed to 70 km/h and the tension is palpable as the second truck closes in on the distance between the vehicle in front, made stranger by the fact that trucks routinely keep 1 km apart to avoid accidents.
But don't worry, the second driver hasn't succumbed to a case of road rage. He simply doesn't have control of the speed and brakes of his vehicle ... the first truck took over those responsibilities, explains Edouard Proust, an advanced vehicle engineer at FPInnovations. "This is the principle of truck platooning, where the head truck takes the wind to reduce the aerodynamic drag for the trucks following behind," he explains.
Truck platooning tests have been held on regular roads for many years and this technique is legally permitted in some states including Tennessee and Georgia, but it's the first time that platooning was tested on forestry roads. "It's the first test in Canada for sure, and probably in the world," adds Proust.
These tests were made possible because Auburn University, one of the world's research leaders in autonomous vehicles, was already testing new devices on Michigan roads in late October. When FPInnovations researchers heard about the tests, they contacted the lead researcher, Dave Bevly, to launch a collaborative project in Canada, explains Francis Charette, the lead researcher on FPInnovation Forestry 4.0 initiative. "Our goal is to validate if the Auburn University technology, developed for paved roads, can be useful for the forestry industry."
© Guillaume Roy
For two days, two Auburn University-owned automatic trucks were driven to the forests near the Resolute forest product mill in Rivière-aux-Rats, to test how the radars, GPS, radio communication and other devices would react in harsh conditions, with dust, steep hills, sharp curves ... and a lot of snow on the first day! "It allows us to work with new researchers in an exciting new way, because this is the first time we have done this kind of off-road platooning," said Jim Killian, Communications and Marketing Director. (OF WHAT?) This will help us bring Auburn expertise to the next level, by collecting more data in a harsh environment."
While on this occasion the trucks were tested empty, the experiments show the following trucks can register fuel economy between 5 and 10% on the road. "We expect this percentage to be a bit smaller on forestry roads, but this will depend on road conditions," notes Proust. But that's not all, because the lead vehicle can also register a fuel reduction, up to 2%, since a vacuum is created by the platooning technique.
To reduce the aerodynamic drag and create a vacuum, the trucks need to be as close to one another as possible. Tests are under way to find the best distance to optimize fuel economy and performance. But one thing is certain; the trucks are able to travel at distances much closer to one another that if a driver were in command.
"We can take away the driver's perception response time and the reaction delay, because radio communication is done in milliseconds," says Proust. As a result, distance is limited to the mechanical aspects of breaking.
"Human reaction time varies between 1.5 and 2.5 seconds, depending on circulation and visibility," notes Dominique Dion, a manager at Transport Canada, a vital partner in the project, because platooning is illegal on Canadian roads at this point. "The communication system that works between two vehicles is about 0.1 second," he adds. To make sure nothing goes wrong when the leading truck brakes, a small delay is induced on the command, allowing the following trucks to break first.
© Guillaume Roy & FPInnovations
Although the appearance of autonomous drivers on forestry roads isn't imminent, it is important to start testing the technology on real-life conditions, maintains Francis Charrette. "We begin with acceleration and breaking to pave the way towards autonomous trucks," he says. Steering control will be the next step of this evolution, adds Edouard Proust.
"When the technology is mature, it will help solve the chronic truck driver shortage," Proust says. "The lack of competent drivers is becoming such a big issue that a mill had to close for a few weeks because they did not have enough drivers to carry the materials in and out," adds Jonathan Perron, Resolute Forest Product Forest Operation & Wood Procurement Manager.
According to Pierre Cormier, Resolute Forest Products VP, "we need to think about future technologies now, to stay competitive on the markets. Technologies also make us more attractive to the younger generations, he says, and it allows us to reduce our environmental impact, by reducing fuel consumption."
Many questions remain about how—and when—this technology will be displayed in the forest. For example, how will the road be shared between other forest users and a four-truck convoy? How can logistics work to welcome such a convoy at the mill?
At least, the first step in the right direction was made, notes Francis Charette. And we might be surprised how fast autonomous vehicle hit the roads ... even in the bush.