Ten long-distance drivers that would have had to drive their trucks themselves in the past can finally let go of the steering wheel in June. Having undergone intensive training, they will be overseeing the first platoons driving on the A9 highway (autobahn). As part of this trial run, researchers from the Fresenius University of Applied Sciences will be measuring some of the drivers’ physical data—for instance, tracking their eye movements. The researchers want to arrange one-on-one interviews to find out what the drivers think of this new technology. Other road users’ observations will also be incorporated into the study. The scientists hope to be able to gain initial insights into platooning in road transportation. Various traffic experts from Germany are eagerly awaiting the results.
Prof. Christian T. Haas, Chair of the Institute for Complex Health Research at the Fresenius University of Applied Sciences
Professor Haas, people are expecting a lot from your research. How do you go about tackling this challenge?
We are very much aware of our responsibility as part of this project. Anything we do find out during the study, which will run until January 2019, will for the time being be seen as set in stone and potentially as pointing the way ahead, which is why we ask a lot of our process for collecting and evaluating data. To give you a rough idea: a test drive takes an average of two hours. Measuring brain activity and tracking eye movements alone produces 8,000 to 10,000 units of data every second. By applying solid research methods, we hope to not only be able to gain insights into automated and autonomous processes on our roads, but to also draw inferences for other areas of application and Industry 4.0 scenarios, especially those that involve human and machine interaction.
You will be working closely together with drivers behind the wheels of the platoons. To what extent do you think their job will change as a result of this new technology?
In order to obtain more facts that are reliable, we are starting by interviewing the truck drivers in a relatively open setup. This will make us aware of the drivers’ hopes, wishes, and expectations, which we can then use to develop guidelines for future interviews. Their job will change in a variety of ways. For example: even today, all professional drivers are still lone wolves driving their own vehicles and making their own driving decisions. When driving in a platoon, the driver behind the wheel of the vehicle in front takes on more responsibility for the trucks that follow autonomously and the drivers keeping an eye on them. In other words, lone wolves become team players. We also have to bear these requirements in mind because when people work in groups, new challenges arise—for example, as a result of interpersonal relationships or a difference in prior technical knowledge. Technical innovations like platooning have an impact on our working and personal life. You just have to look at other developments to realize this—say, computers or smartphones.
Stefan Gerwens, Head of the Traffic division at ADAC
Mr. Gerwens, to what extent can new technology like platooning contribute to keeping growing traffic volumes at bay and, for example, stopping traffic jams?
Many people expect automated vehicles to not only improve road safety but to also make transportation by road more efficient. However, this can only become reality in a technologically homogeneous environment, i.e., where all vehicles and road users have been reliably connected and automated and all driving maneuvers can be agreed on democratically. As long as automated vehicles continue to operate in mixed traffic that also includes vehicles that are driven manually, it will be impossible for these technological benefits to reach their full potential in every case.
Digitalization means innovation, including on the roads. Drivers have to be open to new ideas. How would ADAC advise road users who come across technologies like platooning for the first time?
The aim of digital assistance systems and automated functions in vehicles is to make up for the driver’s behavioral flaws or to simulate error-free driving as far as possible. In an ideal world, other road users would not notice anything different—maybe apart from seeing particularly “perfect” driving from that vehicle. The field trial with long trucks in Germany has shown that most of the road users also did not realize they were driving next to a long vehicle.
Werner Reh, Head of Infrastructure and Traffic at BUND e.V.
Mr. Reh, how do you think German truck transportation will change, and what role does platooning have to play in this?
We reckon that the number of trucks will have increased by 40% by 2030. For our environment’s sake, we would like to do something to stop this growth trend. As part of this process, we recommend targeted infrastructure planning, transitioning from transportation by road to transportation by rail, and new incentives for moving away from roads in the form of regional traffic and economic infrastructure. As for platooning itself, we only expect it to have a small impact on the environment. It goes without saying that improved aerodynamics can save fuel. Because the trucks drive closer together, they make slightly better use of the space available on the roads.
In your opinion, how can we increase the potential platoons have for the environment?
In his book “Die digitale Mobilitätsrevolution” (The Digital Mobility Revolution), author and sociologist Andreas Knie does not just wish for digitalized vehicles—he also hopes for mobility services to be connected online. This creates both synergies and new opportunities for the environment.
Digitalization is affecting more and more parts of our everyday life, which means it has an impact on how efficient our society is. In order to create the best possible conditions for platooning, we have to register as many requirements as we can. “Right now, we stand a good chance of influencing the pace of development and incorporating our insights into technology in a way that makes sense,” explains Professor Haas from the Fresenius University of Applied Sciences. The Volkswagen Truck & Bus Group wants to be the main driver behind this development and is one of Europe’s platooning pioneers with the test runs carried out by its MAN and Scania brands. The aim is to use new technologies to drive down fuel consumption and CO₂ emissions while optimizing traffic capacity in the long term.