A dozen trucks utilising an autonomous driving system arrived in Rotterdam last week, after traveling across Europe in the European Truck Platooning Challenge.

The Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment, along with the Directorate General Rijkswaterstaat, the Netherlands Vehicle Authority and the Conference of European Directors of Roads were behind the initiative, which equipped a number of trucks with state-of-the-art driving support systems to create more efficient commercial vehicles.

The European Truck Platooning Challenge featured six truck brands that set out from three locations.

Scania’s trucks left from south of Stockholm and headed through Sweden, Denmark and Germany before making it to Rotterdam. Volvo began its trip in Gothenburg and headed through the same countries, and Iveco departed from Brussels. Daimler, MAN and VAF also took part.

Each platoon drove on European motorways in normal traffic conditions.

This project’s was designed to create a system that allows commercial trucks to follow one another closely, which would reduce drag, improve safety and potentially create economic growth in the traffic and transport sector.

Each of the test vehicles was connected by WiFi, which allowed for the close platooning that wouldn’t be possible with human drivers.

Platooning in essence is a throwback to the era of rail transport — but with the freedom to go beyond where tracks are laid.

“This system makes trucks go behind each other so the drag is reduced, where the platoon of trucks becomes more efficient,” said Peter Harrop, chairman of IDTechEx.

“It is like a railway train but nothing is physically coupled together and this saves on fuel and in turn can reduce pollution,” said Harrop.

Platooning is more viable on open highways than in congested cities, Harrop noted.

“This type of system can’t be as readily used in cities where a bunch of lunatics might jump out at you. But it solves a problem of congestion outside the cities. You can’t build more roads as there isn’t room, so this allows you to use those existing roads more efficiently,” he said.

Another benefit of the system is that it could reduce the two biggest expenses for trucking companies — drivers and fuel.

“This is really the next proving ground for ground transport and reducing the costs associated with it,” said Maryanna Saenko, head of the autonomous systems group at Lux Research.

“The largest cost for truck companies are the drivers and all that goes with it including insurance costs,” she said.

However, autonomous systems won’t mean the end of drivers.

“Fully automated trucks are still a way off but even down the road the aim won’t be to replace the driver but to supplement the driver’s abilities,” Saenko added.

“No one plans on fuel being cheap forever and fuel costs are still a huge part of the operational costs for trucking companies,” she noted.

The technology is still very much an assistance feature, according to Jeremy Carlson, senior analyst for autonomous driving at IHS Automotive.

“This type of automated vehicle takes 98 percent of the miles but you still need to have a human driver ready to handle some of the scenarios that come with large trucks, including navigating narrow city roads,” he said.

“We see this automated technology as something that is supported with a driver,” Carlson said.

Commercial fleets might adopt the technology faster than passenger vehicles, he added. It would be easier to sell to trucking companies and more economical to install in a fleet.

“However, in a longer timeline it is something that passenger vehicles could use, where cars could join a platoon on the highway,” Carlson suggested.

One downside to the technology is that it could put more vehicles on the road in the short term. The truck as a means to move goods overtook the train in the United States following World War II for a number of reasons, including a strong push by the growing automotive industry.

Autonomous platooning technology could further allow trucks to remain the de facto commercial transport.

“It could increase the market for trucks in Europe,” said IDTechEx’s Harrop.

“Some countries like China are building high-speed rail as a means to move goods because they don’t have the highway infrastructure, but in America trains barely crawl along in most places,” he added.

“Ironically, you could have a railway-like transport system on the road and it could go much faster,” Harrop said, “but that could mean the need for more trucks.”