The world is changing, and the digitization of transportation is continuing apace. Sometimes with unexpected actors, like Deutsche Bahn, which starts to try automatized trucks… Operating electronically linked trucks on German motorways is safe, technically reliable and easily applicable in the routine of a logistics company. These are the key results of the world’s first field test with truck platoons in real logistics operations, which the project partners presented in Berlin last week. By using this technology, DB Schenker want to expand its digital business model.
But why is a railway company interested in truck grouping? As is known, the Deutsche Bahn Group operates its freight traffic through the subsidiary Schenker, a company bought in 2002. DB Schenker groups together all the transport and logistics activities of Deutsche Bahn (except rail freight), employing more 72,000 people in approximately 2,000 locations in 140 countries. Since 2016, the rail freight business is no longer operated under the DB Schenker Rail brand, but as an autonomous commercial unit under the DB Cargo brand within the Deutsche Bahn Group. It is therefore rather on the logistics segment that the test of trucks in platoon is made.
But the other reason is technological. As explains Prof. Dr. Sabina Jeschke, DB Board Member for Digitalization and Technology, by using this technology, DB Schenker want to expand its digital business model. « We at DB are once again bringing a new technology to the road. With the platooning project, we are further expanding our pioneering role in the field of autonomous and networked driving, ».
On technical side, platooning refers to a system that vehicles use on the road in which at least two trucks drive in a tight convoy on a highway, supported by technical driving assistance and control systems. All of the vehicles in the platoon are linked to each other by an electronic “drawbar” that uses vehicle-to-vehicle communication. The truck in front sets the speed and direction, and the others follow. The advantage of the technology lies in the slipstream effect that allows the following vehicle to drive more efficiently.
As part of the project, professional drivers drove two electronically linked vehicles on the Autobahn 9 between the Nuremberg and Munich branches of the logistics company DB Schenker over the course of seven months. Having covered some 35,000 test kilometers, the truck drivers, who drove at a distance of only 15 to 21 meters, praised the driving comfort and the general sense of safety. The field test also demonstrated savings in fuel consumption.
DB Schenker did not undertake his tests alone, but with partners. The Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure (BMVI) contributed funding of 1.86 million euros to the project partners MAN Truck & Bus and the Fresenius University of Applied Sciences. According to the project partners, the use of truck platoons could ensure more efficient use of space on motorways, less congestion and increased road safety.
Andreas Scheuer, Federal Minister for Transport and Digital Infrastructure said, « The mobility of the future will be automated and networked. Of course, this is also true for logistics. I therefore fully support the industry in bringing technologies such as platooning to market maturity. We want to make the processes even safer, more efficient and more environmentally friendly, all along the value chain. The drivers have a key role to play here. In a digital truck they will be modern logistics specialists. This will open up new prospects for the profession. »
DB believes platooning possible on 40% of kilometers operated by land transport
According to DB Schenker’s research, platooning can be used extensively in the logistics network. Alexander Doll, Member of the Management Board for Finance, Freight Transport and Logistics at Deutsche Bahn AG said, « We have analyzed our European transport network and it is safe to say that around 40% of the kilometers traveled could be carried out in platoons. » For this, however, further tests and ensuring the regulatory framework would be necessary. Customers would also benefit. « With platooning we can offer even more reliable transports. »
The platooning system installed in the MAN trucks operated smoothly 98% of the time. Active interventions by the driver in second position were necessary only once every 2,000 kilometers, which is much less than expected. In addition, the pilot project demonstrated a 3 to 4 percent reduction in fuel consumption. « We were able to show that platooning has the potential to contribute to the reduction of fuel consumption and CO2 emissions. First and foremost, we are pleased that the system works reliably and can increase safety on the motorway. Accordingly, platooning is an important step for us on the way to automation », said Joachim Drees, Chairman of the Management Board of MAN Truck & Bus SE.
Scientists confirm that drivers feel safe
Scientists from the Fresenius University of Applied Sciences investigated the psychosocial and neurophysiological effects on the drivers. Having experienced the actual field test brought about a significant change in the previously sceptical attitude of the drivers. « A general sense of safety and trust in the technology is echoed in the drivers’ assessment of specific driving situations. None of these were described as uncontrollable, » said Professor Sabine Hammer from the Institute for the Science of Complex Systems (Institut für komplexe Systemforschung, IKS) at the Fresenius University of Applied Sciences. The drivers experienced vehicles of other road users cutting in from adjacent lanes or cutting across multiple lanes as “disagreeable”, but not critical. « Due to the fast response times of the system, drivers would now prefer a distance of 10-15 meters, » said Hammer.
« The EEG measurements show no systematic differences between platoon runs and normal runs when it comes to the neurophysiological stress placed on drivers, i.e. in terms of concentration or fatigue, » said Professor Christian Haas, Director of the IKS. For international use, the scientists recommend further research with longer periods in platooning mode. The project partners are convinced that the potential of truck platooning can be further increased by future developments. In addition, new digital business models in logistics are conceivable.
Potentially, trucks grouped by platoon could be an answer to the journeys that do not require a complete train in a logistic circuit. Deutsche Bahn’s involvement therefore only concerns the logistics sector, which seems invariably designed to work with the road sector. What does one want to prove by isolating rail freight in a separate entity, apart from logistics? That’s the question. « We produce too expensive and too sophisticated, » said in 2016 a DB manager at Die Welt. It is not the sudden current consciousness about the climate that will change anything. One certainty: the road is moving forward, making progress and not waiting for the rail to wake up. That’s we must never forget …