Alberta highways used in national study to test automated truck convoys

Published Sept. 29, 2021 4:56 p.m. ET
Updated Sept. 29, 2021 9:16 p.m. ET

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CALGARY -- Starting in November the Queen Elizabeth II highway to Edmonton and the Trans Canada highway to Banff will have select long haul trucks travelling nose to tail that will appear far too close together to passing drivers.

But it's a more efficient way of hauling goods because that short distance apart will result in a smoother traffic flow, higher traffic safety, fuel savings and a reduction in CO2 emissions.

"Pilot projects like this one will give us a better understanding of the safety and reliability of emerging technologies and their future uses on our highways," said Alberta's transportation minister Rajan Sawhney. "I look forward to seeing the results of this project and I'll be watching it closely."

It's called platooning, which is when two or more trucks are driving automatically and linked using connectivity technology and automated driving support systems.

"The critical piece to remember here is there's a professional driver behind the wheel of the vehicle as it's being operated," said Jude Groves, Alberta Motor Transport Association board chair. "They're monitoring the vehicle, they're monitoring the traffic around and their job and responsibilities haven't changed outside of being supported by some additional technology."

University of Alberta professor in psychology and neuroscience Anthony Singhal is leading a team of researchers on the project.

"This is a ground-breaking study," said Singhal. "It's the first one to do a live trial in a natural environment not controlled in a simulator on a track and so that makes this study extremely valuable."

Singhal and his team will look at a number of variables including baseline driving in a single truck without any automation, in a single truck with automation and then in the platooning system with automation so they can make all of the comparisons. They want to know what's physically happening to the driver in each situation.

"So we're using psychophysiological measures, we're going to collect their brainwaves, their heart rate data, their eye movement data while they're driving in this platooning system," said Singhal.

The Cooperative Truck Platooning System (CTPS) trials will provide data on evolving driver automation and is funded by Transport Canada. 20 drivers from Bison Transport will receive specialized training to operate the advanced technology.

Curtis Mann is one of those drivers with two decades of experience behind the wheel.

"Twenty years ago if you're to tell me that we would have such sophisticated computer systems where the trucks can virtually drive themselves with very little input, I would have told you you're crazy," said Mann. "And yet here we are 20 years later, it's like it's a reality."

Mann said he volunteered because he wants be on top of the technological changes in his industry.

"At the end of the day I want to be part of something where it helps bring awareness to the fatigue aspect of driving," said Mann. "So we can address that so there's less tired drivers on the road."

The platoon trucks and the technology was tested on a closed track in Quebec for two weeks before making their way to Alberta highways.

"This isn't like it's untested," said Groves. "It's been trialed on tracks, it's been trialed in a number of other countries within Europe as well, in the U.S. and proven successful.

"This is looking at more of the impact of the driver and ensuring that the driver's cognitive and psychological impacts are truly understood as this technology becomes more mainstream."

Road trials begin November 1 and run for six months.

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