One Driver Steers Two Trucks With Peloton’s Autonomous Follow System

Photo of trucks driving.
Photo: Peloton Technology

By: Tekla S. Perry

A host of companies are working to develop autonomous driving technology, but Silicon Valley startup Peloton has put its focus on autonomous following. The company today announced technology that uses computers, sensors, and vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications to allow one driver to drive two separate trucks. 

Last year, Peloton began selling technology that enabled closer and safer truck platooning, using sensors, V2V communications, and automatic powertrain control and braking. That version of its product, Platoon Pro, requires a driver in the second truck to steer. The new version will take the second driver out of the equation.

Here’s how it works: In the front truck, the driver drives normally. Whenever he adjusts his foot on the throttle, touches the brakes, or maneuvers the steering wheel, digital details describing that action are wirelessly transmitted to the computer in the following truck. Using that information, along with data gathered from its own collection of radars, cameras, and other sensors, the second truck can safely trail close behind the first, forming a single-driver platoon.

Peloton founder Josh Switkes has been thinking about the autonomous vehicle problem for a long time. While finishing his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from Stanford in 2006, he worked for Volkswagen in Germany, conducting experiments on how drivers respond to autonomous vehicles. There were, of course, no fully-functioning autonomous vehicles back then, so Switkes hid behind a one-way mirror in the back seat, ready to take control of the car. A VW colleague rode as a passenger, while the test subject sat in the driver’s seat. The test subject was told to push a button on the dash at any time to activate the car’s self-driving system (which was actually the hidden Switkes).

Switkes found that it only took about 10 seconds after pushing the button before the human driver would take his or her hands off the wheel and turn to chat with the VW employee sitting in the passenger seat. That kind of trust, he says, looked good for future attempts to market self-driving technology, but not so good for road safety, at least in the short run.

Since then, Switkes says, “I haven’t been a fan of Level 2 or 3 autonomy because if people think a car can drive on its own, they will trust it to do that without really assessing the system.” (Level 2 autonomous vehicles have automated acceleration, deceleration, and some steering, like lane maintenance. Level 3 autonomous vehicles drive themselves in normal conditions, but require a driver to quickly intervene in case of emergency.)

Platooning, however, a concept that his Ph.D. advisor had previously explored as part of a smart highway project, captured Switkes’ attention. It seemed to be a problem that could be solved sooner than Level 5 autonomy (fully autonomous in all driving conditions), yet didn’t require that a human driver be on constant alert, even when the vehicle is driving itself. Instead, one vehicle would have a fully engaged human driver, while one vehicle would have no human at all.

“A lot of the tech challenges get dramatically simpler when you are following another vehicle,” Switkes says. “You aren’t worrying about what is way ahead—just about not hitting the car in front of you, and watching for other vehicles that might try to get in between you and that car.”

In 2011, brainstorming about startup possibilities with friends, the discussion turned to platooning. Switkes started looking at possible market opportunities, and trucking stood out. He filed for a number of patents that year on automated following technology.

Knowing nothing about trucking, Switkes also got a learner’s permit to allow him to get behind the wheel of large trucks and better empathize with truck drivers. The experience was daunting. “It’s really scary out there,” he says.

He incorporated Peloton in 2013 and got his first round of funding that year. Since then, the company has collected UA $80 million in investment. Its L1 Platoon Pro is currently legal in 22 states and is now being tested by six trucking companies, Switkes says.

The new L4 automatic following system is not yet street legal, and is currently being tested on closed tracks.

This article originally appeared in IEEE Spectrum on 17 July 2019.