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Focus on platooning: driving forward land transportation

Digitally linked: the platoon of two trucks has been on the move on the autobahn since April. The Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure is funding the joint project, launched by DB Schenker, MAN and Hochschule Fresenius, to the tune of around two million euros

Photos: Deutsche Bahn AG / MAN / Wolfgang Groeger-Meier



In a nutshell: In platooning, at least two trucks are electronically coupled using technical driving assistance and control systems, enabling them to drive behind one another with a minimal gap. This offers major advantages: the technical systems increase safety and reduce the burden on drivers, slipstreaming improves fuel consumption, the small gap ensures better utilization of existing road infrastructure, all of which results in enhanced goods transport efficiency. In a joint project using a platoon consisting of two trucks, DB Schenker, MAN and the University of Applied Sciences, Hochschule Fresenius, are studying the precise effects of this new automated driving technology. The platoon will operate between two of DB Schenker’s cargo terminals based in Munich and Nuremberg. The first tests were launched in April, with final trials scheduled for next January.


Why are the project partners so committed to platooning?

Chung Anh Tran from the DB Schenker parent company, Deutsche Bahn AG, holds overall responsibility for the project
Chung Anh Tran from the DB Schenker parent company, Deutsche Bahn AG, holds overall responsibility for the project

“Our main goal is to harness the benefits of autonomous driving for use in the logistics industry and to subsequently promote the application of automated driving technologies. Platooning is an important step in achieving that objective,” says Chung Anh Tran, who has overall responsibility for the project at DB Schenker’s parent company, Deutsche Bahn AG. Platooning itself not only has a huge potential, it also applies key principles that will play an important role in autonomous driving. For example, when delegating the control of a vehicle to technical systems. Another aspect is to establish a legal framework when ceding control to a vehicle. This is just one of many regulatory issues raised by platooning and, as a consequence, of autonomous driving. “In addressing these issues, this project will provide an important stimulus, and it will do so on the basis of a realistic scenario, tested on the road in real-life conditions.”

What potential does platooning have in logistics processes?

Apart from its potential in terms of security and fuel consumption, digitally networked trucks offer considerable potential for improving efficiency within general cargo networks. “Just imagine, we might one day actually be in a position where the driver in the second truck no longer has to intervene at all. He could then attend to additional tasks, such as processing freight data,“ says Ane-Kristin Reif-Mosel, who as Project Manager Corporate Development at DB Schenker is responsible for all of the company’s activities related to autonomous driving. “Furthermore, assuming this driver has not yet exhausted his individual allowance for active driving during the trip as part of the platoon, he could subsequently take over active driving tasks in other journeys, which of course makes better use of his working time and capabilities, for example, on local trips. What impact all of the above might have, not least on the drivers involved, and which steps need to be undertaken to then align both the general cargo network and the workflow in the terminals will be analyzed over the course of the project.

How much autonomous driving does this project involve?

At MAN, Walter Schwertberger is responsible for the project, which the German-speaking partners have abbreviated to EDDI (“Elektronische Deichsel, Digitale Innovation,” meaning “Electronic Drawbar, Digital Innovation”)
At MAN, Walter Schwertberger is responsible for the project, which the German-speaking partners have abbreviated to EDDI (“Elektronische Deichsel, Digitale Innovation,” meaning “Electronic Drawbar, Digital Innovation”)

The driver of the lead truck accelerates, brakes and steers, supported by the full range of assistance systems available for state-of-the-art trucks. The second truck, which follows at a distance of between twelve and 15 meters, automatically matches this, driving synchronously without any intervention by its driver. “However, at this stage the driver of the second truck still keeps both hands on the wheel,” explains Walter Schwertberger, responsible for the project at MAN. The digital coupling of trucks works at speeds of up to 80 kilometers an hour. If another vehicle cuts in between the two trucks or when approaching roadworks, the system immediately warns the driver of the second truck to take back full control of his vehicle.

What technology are the trucks equipped with?

“Both trucks are identically equipped so that either of them can take the lead in the platoon,” says Schwertberger. The trucks are linked by a wireless network that was developed to enable vehicle-to-vehicle communication, and a laser scanner called a Lidar measures the lateral and longitudinal gap between the trucks. In addition, the trucks are equipped with a prototypical steering system and a modified steering wheel. The truck’s existing radar and camera sensor technology is also utilized. “The cockpit display enables drivers to see in real time whether the platoon is active or not.”

To what extent do these test runs reflect everyday operations?

Ane-Kristin Reif-Mosel, Project Manager Corporate Development, is responsible for the project on the part of DB Schenker
Ane-Kristin Reif-Mosel, Project Manager Corporate Development, is responsible for the project on the part of DB Schenker

The convoy comprises standard trucks used to transport general cargo; the people behind the wheel are professional drivers who have already worked on behalf of the company, and the trucks operate on the autobahn between the company’s terminals in Munich and Nuremberg. Whereas initially, individual test runs are being completed without cargo, the number of trips is being steadily increased up to daily platoon runs with trucks carrying actual cargo. “The distance one way is around 140 kilometers, and we estimate that 125 kilometers are driven in an active platoon,” says Ane-Kristin Reif-Mosel.

Why are the drivers being scientifically monitored?

Platooning and autonomous driving will fundamentally change the everyday working life and the occupational profile of truckers. The project partners want to identify the effect this will have on the driver in the cab. Firstly, in relation to the driving situation: “For the driver in the second truck it will initially be stressful to be driving only a short distance behind the lead truck without being able to intervene,” says Sabine Hammer, project coordinator at Hochschule Fresenius. Secondly, the researchers want to ascertain how the drivers respond to certain situations. Ultimately, the question being asked is: how does ceding control to technical systems affect the driver’s self-conception?

What research methods are being used?

Sabine Hammer heads the research group at Hochschule Fresenius, the university scientifically monitoring the project
Sabine Hammer heads the research group at Hochschule Fresenius, the university scientifically monitoring the project

The ten drivers in the platoon as well as around 25 other drivers will be interviewed in detail – both individually and in groups. “One of the questions being asked, for example, will be whether the drivers of the second trucks can actually imagine being able to take on additional tasks,” Sabine Hammer explains. On several occasions, the platoons will be accompanied by a university researcher who will make a note of the driver’s comments – or monitor the wealth of data being recorded. The data will be supplied by electrode caps that measure brain activity (EEG) as well as eye-tracking devices, which will be worn by the drivers to assess their stress levels, alertness and concentration in specific driving situations.

Why does the test only involve a platoon of two trucks?

Earlier, mainly technology-driven projects have shown that platoons consisting of up to four trucks are feasible. But in this case, preliminary studies indicated that the traffic situation on Germany’s autobahn network was too complex to put more than two coupled trucks into logistics operations at this early stage of the project. “Platooning is far simpler on highways with less traffic, like in Sweden or Australia,” says Ane-Kristin Reif-Mosel. Nevertheless, she maintains that not least due to its highly demanding road traffic Germany was the right place to apply this technology, a technology that would be used on a global scale in the future. She argues: “If we can apply it successfully here, then it could be useful in many places.”

Where do the partners want to be by the time the project ends?

By early 2019 both trucks will have completed up to 30,000 kilometers in a platoon. “We are convinced that we will gather a wealth of reliable data and experiences: on the system’s robustness, its fuel savings potential as well as its impact on logistical processes and on the drivers,” says Chung Anh Tran, who holds the overall responsibility for the project. “On the basis of this data, we can continue to discuss this topic at all various levels, not least on a political level.”

Electrode cap and eye-tracking device: Hochschule Fresenius uses numerous methods to study the effects of platooning on the participating drivers, including individual and group interviews

Deutsche Bahn AG / MAN / Wolfgang Groeger-Meier



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