In the first trials the system will include two Freightliner New Cascadia rigs. Picture: Daimler AG

Atlanta, Georgia - Daimler has become the first truckmaker to begin testing what it calls digitally connected trucks and what the rest of the world calls platooning on public roads in the United States.

After proving to state authorities in trials at its proving ground in Madras, Oregon that the system really does work, Daimler has received permission from the Oregon department of transportation to begin testing on the open road.

In the first trials - ‘pairing’ in Daimlerspeak - the system will include just two Freightliner New Cascadia rigs, with the lead one being driven by a human, and the second following like a remote-controlled trailer, with a human driver on board but ‘hands-off’ unless needed.

Daimler Trucks North America president Roger Nielsen said at the North American Commercial Vehicle Show: ”We’re seeing growing customer interest in platooning. It’s not meant to replace drivers - it's designed to help drivers.

“Right now, we’re driving Freightliners in pairs every day - when the world is ready for platooning, we’ll have a proven solution. I’ve driven one of our trucks in connected mode myself, and I was impressed.”

Proven system

Truckmakers say connectivity and automated driving improve safety within the convoys, support drivers and enhance fuel-efficiency by enabling the convoys to close up tighter than would be safe - or legal! - with human drivers.

The system has been proven in Europe, notably by Mercedes-Benz trucks in the 2016 European Truck Platooning Challenge. Now Daimler Trucks North America is working with fleet customers to understand how platooning can improve fleet operations in terms of dispatch, logistics and even driver training, with a view to real-world testing, in everyday transport operations with large fleet customers, starting in 2018.

Daimler Trucks has already connected about 500 000 trucks around the world to the internet of things, and for the US tests, it’s combining Wi-Fi-based vehicle-to-vehicle communication with the existing Freightliner driver aids package, including adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist and active brake assist.

That enables truck operators to save fuel by slipstreaming, because vehicle-to-vehicle reaction times are now down to 0.2 or 0.3 seconds, while most human drivers can’t respond in less than a second. And since human error is responsible for 94 percent of US road crashes, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, proponents of platooning say it will help prevent accidents.

Nevertheless, the development of platooning - in Europe as well as in the United States - is as much about regulatory issues as it is about the technology, and Nielsen says that when the legal framework is in place, Daimler customers will be able to operate their vehicles in platooning mode.