A Brief History of Truck Platooning

The idea of truck platooning started long ago. While today we refer to smart highways and semi-autonomous rigs when we discuss platooning, the technology got its start much farther back than many of us realize.

The fact is, governments, universities, and car and truck manufacturers have been investing heavily in preparing truly advanced platooning technologies for wide-spread use. Let’s take a deeper look at the history of this technique.

Platooning Starts in Europe

Truck platooning predates the advanced technological means we speak of today. The early days of truck platooning could have been referenced when describing a train of big rigs following each other, whether to reduce aerodynamic drag, or for some other reason.

Some might say platooning can be traced in a very real way all the way back to 1939, when the idea for the first automated car was put forth by futurist Norman Bel Geddes. By the 1970s we had the European ARAMIS project. In this early stab at what would end up becoming ubiquitous technologies, the ARAMIS project had as many as 25 small vehicles running just a foot apart at 50 mph on a French test track.

The next major step came again in Europe. From the late 80s to mid-90s, the Prometheus Project. This iteration came in the form of both car and truck makers collaborating with technology companies and universities, much like the way different players are collaborating today.

The Prometheus Project had the pan-Euro aim of creating an intelligent road system that could communicate with the vehicles operating on it. The system was designed to incorporate elements of vehicle control, wireless communication and artificial intelligence.

One of the companies at the forefront of this early innovation was Volkswagen. They ran test-track trials using multiple-vehicle platoons at highway speeds with fully autonomous steering and longitudinal control. Although the technologies showed promise, VW ended up dropping the project for (surprise, surprise) political reasons.

Global Innovation

Just as the Europeans were dropping their early innovations in platooning, the United States was taking up the cause. In California, the work continued at UC Berkeley, under the Partners for Advanced Transportation Technology (PATH) project. The program dates all the way back to 1986 and is still in place today.

The PATH project started as a joint effort between state and local governments and ended up pioneering a number of platooning technologies. In 1994 it showed off an automated highway system comprised of a four-car platoon using an automated longitudinal control position. By 1997 they had ramped that up to an eight-car platoon. In its current application, PATH is running three-truck platoons operating at 14 foot intervals.

Today, there are a number of different test-programs under way across the globe. The Safe Road Trains for the Environment (SARTRE) was a recent project that ran from 2010 to 2012, in partnership with the European Commission, Ricardo UK and Volvo.

SARTRE’s goal was to develop strategies and technologies that would hopefully lead to highway viable platoons that also yield key environmental and safety benefits. The key difference from this application and the ones that preceded it is that SARTRE relied on automated control in both longitudinal and lateral positions, which was the first time an application included lateral control.

Mixed Applications

SARTRE also innovated on its mixed use of both large trucks and passenger vehicles. Nor was it tested on closed tracks. It was the first use of vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications on public roads in Spain. It pioneered using shared speed and road sensor data to coordinate members of the platoon.

The project used a manually driven lead truck followed by another truck and three Volvo cars. Each vehicle was driven autonomously at speeds of up to 55 mph. In most cases there was no more than a 13-foot gap between each vehicle.

SARTRE’s long-term vision it to help facilitate the creation of a transport system where joining or decoupling from an active road train is a fairly easy proposition. In order to facilitate such an arrangement, road-train information and operation will become fully integrated in future vehicles and smart highway technologies.

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