Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Keep on trucking? No, Keep on Platooning!


The concept of "platooning" involves electronically connected trucks running close to each other. It is a much more innovative idea than that of self-driven private cars and it has the potential of revolutionizing road transport by drastically reducing costs. (image from scania.com).



Self-driving cars (or "automated vehicles," AVs) are all the rage in the debate. In most cases, we have a lot of hype and little evidence but it is also true that such cars are not impossible. So, what can we say about this idea?

I often say that technological progress is subjected to the golden rule that it generates more problems than it solves. So, not surprisingly, the way AVs are normally proposed today they would solve no important existing problem but would bring new ones. In most cases, you are told that you'll still own a car, use it for commuting, take your family to a vacation - the only difference with AVs is that you are relieved of the drudgery of having to keep your hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road. But a recent study reports that, under equivalent conditions of owning a driverless car, people tend to log in more miles and keep their cars circling around rather than bothering about finding a parking space. Not exactly the way to reduce traffic congestion and pollution.


But there is a different application of AVs which may qualify as a true technological breakthrough. It is "platooning." (Image from The Business Times). At first sight, it doesn't look like a big innovation. Trucks running close to each other? Didn't that already exist under the name of "trailers"?

There is a breakthrough here, and it is a big one. First of all, platooning doesn't need the massive complication of a completely self-driving car. A platoon of trucks is still supposed to be controlled by humans - what is needed for platooning are sensors and actuators coupled with some computing control. Then, of course, you need safety tricks to ensure that a "de-platooned" truck doesn't run awry, but that should not be a problem. Platooning is one of those "sweet" technologies that need only existing subsystems to function.

Then, the advantages. A minor one is that a platooned truck has a lower aerodynamic resistance. But this is peanuts in comparison to the real advantage of the scheme: saving on the cost of personnel. The platooned trucks simply do what the first truck does, there is no need for every truck to have a driver. So, connect two trucks together and you halve the number of drivers needed. Connect three or more, and you proportionally reduce the cost of the human drivers.

Now, according to a recent study of the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI), the cost of drivers represents 40% of the total transportation cost per mile (p. 24 of the report). You see how big the change could be just in terms of reducing the number of drivers.

But there is more. Right now, there is no interest in slowing down trucks in order to save fuel because the cost of drivers rises proportionally to the number of hours traveled. But for platooning it makes sense to slow down the whole train and reduce fuel costs. Slower trucks also bring fewer accidents and consequently lower insurance costs. Slower speeds also allow using smaller engines and simpler technologies. And that would also reduce the need for maintenance of roads and bridges. All these effects come together in bringing costs down.

So, platooning is a big innovation. But it must be seen in light of the evolution of the whole society. Alice Friedemann has argued in her book "When Trucks Stop Running" that trucks are a critical element of the way modern society function. Will we have sufficient resources to keep trucks running in the future, platooning or not?

Surely, a complete societal collapse generated by resource depletion or runaway climate change would necessarily ensure that the transportation system would collapse, too. But platooning could make trucking much more resilient. If trucking were to use less energy, trucks could be made to run on electric power provided by batteries or by overhead wires. Current rubber tires are made from petroleum but if the trucks slow down we won't need so much rubber as we do today and rubber synthesized from biological sources could do the job. The same is true for the asphalt of roads: slower trucks would place a lower strain on road surfaces and we might go back to "Macadamized" roads.

So, platooning is an innovation that we shouldn't ignore. And, as usual, it will have important impacts - not necessarily good. Substantially lowering the cost of road transport will make it more competitive in comparison to rail. This could further marginalize the already marginal role of railroads in freight transportation. Then, nothing prevents from platooning also buses or other kinds of vehicles, also reducing transportation costs. That might mean the end of railroads, except for high-speed trains where road vehicles can't compete.

But the truly major effect of platooning is on employment. In the US alone, there are more than 3.5 million truck drivers. Trucking is the most popular medium-skill jobs still available in most of the industrialized world. Platooning may create millions of unemployed drivers. How society will react to that is hard to say, but the shock is likely to be felt.

As usual, we move into the future driven by enthusiasm and by the idea that better technologies automatically mean better life. Platooning is just one of the new technologies which may lead us to some direction that we might not have wanted to take. But we will.




(h/t Arthur Keller)

Who

Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)