“Real added value”

DB Schenker has taken another step towards the future of road freight transportation – thanks to a platoon of two digitally-networked trucks that transported real shipments on a highway for several months. Christian Drenthen, new Board Member for Global Land Transport, talks about the project

In a nutshell: Platooning is seen as a potential milestone on the journey towards autonomous driving. It involves having at least two trucks that are electronically coupled and are using technical driving assistance and control systems, enabling them to drive behind one another while maintaining a minimal gap. Exactly how much platooning will impact logistics and drivers is something that DB Schenker, MAN and Hochschule Fresenius explored in a joint project, using a platoon consisting of two trucks traveling between two of DB Schenker’s general cargo terminals in Munich and Nuremberg. Completing around 100 trips between June and Christmas 2018, the platoon covered around 35,000 kilometers altogether.

Christian Drenthen (53) has been in charge of the Global Land Transport division of Schenker AG since January 1, 2019. The logistics graduate joined the company in 2015. Photo: DB Schenker

Mr. Drenthen, the platooning project has officially ended. How would you sum it up?

The project is attracting increased interest from people around the world, from public authorities to transport network operators – more than we had anticipated. We are constantly consulted as experts on the subject. We now know that – theoretically – 40 percent of all kilometers traveled on DB Schenker’s Europe-wide general cargo network could someday in the future be handled by platoons. But of course: before we can actually begin using platoons, we  can actually begin using platoons, or trucks with

a higher degree of automation, there are still a number of questions that need be answered during further trials, especially with regard to the relevant legal framework.


In terms of road safety and utilization of the transport infrastructure, the project has already provided important answers. Platooning is considered to have immense potential in both these areas – is that the case?

Our findings show that the technology we used here – WLAN communication between the trucks, laser scanners, radar, etc. – does in fact contribute to better road safety. This has also been confirmed in qualitative interviews with the drivers: in their opinion, the system represents real added value in this respect. With regard to the road infrastructure, our hypothesis was that platooning would result in better utilization thanks to the smaller distances between the trucks. This has also been confirmed, not only by how smoothly these trips went, but also by the fact that the drivers have stated that the shorter the distances between the two trucks, the more comfortable they felt.


What are the effects of platooning on the drivers?

The drivers, who were skeptical at first, have become enthusiastic “platooning pilots” during the project. Moreover, once they were past the familiarization phase, they were confident that the technology works.

Successful outcome: in mid-May the project partners presented the results of the platooning project. Shown in the picture are (l.t.r.): Joachim Drees, MAN Truck & Bus, Alexander Doll, Deutsche Bahn, Dr. Tobias Miethaner, Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure, Prof. Dr. Sabine Hammer and Prof. Dr. Christian Haas, both Hochschule Fresenius – and, not least, driver Andy Kipping. He is wearing the apparatus used by the accompanying scientists to record a large volume of data. Photos: Deutsche Bahn AG / MAN Trucks & Buses

Another question was how much fuel platooning can actually save.

We recorded fuel savings of between three and four percent. However, with safety being a top priority, we created a scenario that pushed up consumption. For example, the special permit required that the system be set up in such a way that it tended to brake too much rather than too little, whenever the coupling between the trucks was activated. 


Where do platooning and autonomous driving at DB Schenker go from here?

We will certainly continue to pursue the subject of autonomous driving. A similar project with an autonomous ‘weasel’ for moving swap bodies has recently started at one of our German locations. And then there is the “T-pod,” the driverless e-truck we put on the road in Sweden in partnership with Swedish start-up Einride. And by road, I do mean road. The T-pod is permitted to drive on a public road – even if it is only a short one.


Why is it so important for DB Schenker to push hard when it comes to autonomous driving?

Autonomous driving might be one of the real “game changers” for future logistics, and we would like to be one of the frontrunners. With the T-pod, we already might have today’s most mature project on public streets. Platooning is another potential new technology. So, let’s see how things will develop – we are pleased with the results so far, and we are looking forward to seeing what the future brings. When it comes to autonomous driving, and other areas of digitalization, DB Schenker strives to be at the front and set standards within the logistics industry.

The truck platoon in the joint project of DB Schenker, MAN and Hochschule Fresenius covered around 35,000 kilometers – about 5,000 more than expected. Photos: Deutsche Bahn AG / MAN Trucks & Buses