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Solving Trailer Troubles at 9pm

By: Garrett Matt, Director, Peloton Technology Truck Operations

I was thinking about turning in early. I’d already had a long, full day when my cell phone rang one warm August evening last year. The call was coming from Derrick Loo, one of Peloton’s professional drivers; he and another Peloton driver were platooning on an Oklahoma highway on their way to Dallas, hauling freight for a major fleet.  

Derrick and I had spoken earlier that day. As the Truck Operations Director at Peloton, I check in regularly with our drivers on the road, because whether they’re testing the latest version of PlatoonPro or demonstrating driver-assistive platooning to various fleets, I want to know how our PlatoonPro-equipped trucks are running, how the drivers are doing, and whether they’re running into logistical issues. 

On most days of this 12-day customer run, I heard nothing but good news; the drivers were happy to be platooning, freight was moving efficiently, and the customer was satisfied to see how well platooning fit into their logistics operations. But this, as it turns out, was not ‘most days’. 

‘What’s up?’ I asked. The drivers’ shift had started at 1pm; it was now 9pm, so they were well into their 11-hour day. This couldn’t be good news. 

‘Garrett,’ I heard Derrick say, ‘We had a blowout.’ 

I was imagining the worst: there’s so much that can go wrong when a truck tire blows out at 68 mph and large pieces of rubber go flying through the air.

Trailer tire blowout, captured by a camera on the lead driver’s side mirror

It turned out we’d been fortunate: no one was hurt, no other vehicles were involved, and equipment damage was minimal. The drivers, working as a team, had handled the situation professionally and were able to  pull off the highway to safety.

Expecting the unexpected 

After several years in Truck Operations, I’m well aware that stuff happens on the road, even when the trucks are well-maintained and the drivers are doing everything right. Unfortunately, truck tire blowouts occur more often than you’d think, despite the best efforts of fleets and truck drivers. In this case, both drivers had performed the required pre-trip inspections on their tractors and on the fully loaded trailers; they reported that everything looked good, including the trailer tires, which were properly inflated and brand new. Go figure.  

A tire blowout is just one of the risks truck drivers face in their day-to-day job, whether or not they’re platooning. Fortunately, PlatoonPro is designed to operate in the real world, where vehicle and road conditions are far from ideal. Because we want to make the road a safer place, PlatoonPro is built on top of active safety systems (ACC-CMS, AEB, ESC). 

Peloton’s safety approach also includes figuring out where and when to allow platooning, which trucks can platoon together, truck order (lead/follow), and how far apart they should be (platooning gap). We factor in things like the stopping distance capability of both trucks, and we include a margin of safety to further reduce risk. We then conduct extensive testing, both over the road and on the test track, to ensure that our system can handle whatever bumps the drivers might encounter along their way. 

With PlatoonPro, the driver is always in charge of vehicle safety

I listened intently as Derrick filled me in on the details; he had witnessed everything from the driver’s seat of the follow truck. The lead driver was driving as usual, with ACC on. With platooning engaged, and the vehicles connected via V2V communication, Derrick controlled the steering on the follow truck. He kept his feet off the pedals as PlatoonPro managed the acceleration and braking of the follow truck and maintained the platooning gap. 

They were about 250 miles into the 450-mile round trip, and it was shaping up to be a typically uneventful platooning  truck roll. A sudden blast of dust and debris from the rear of the lead truck signaled that one of the trailer tires had just given out. Without hesitation, Derrick hit the brakes to end the platoon. As the system grew the gap to a safe manual following distance, Derrick took charge: over the private, hands-free radio, he notified the lead driver that the outside tire on the left rear duals was gone, and confirmed that the inside tire was still holding. They agreed to pull over as soon as it was safe to do so. 

Derrick was able to position his truck such that he and the other driver were shielded from traffic as they inspected the lead truck for vehicle and trailer damage. Fortunately, the damage was minor.  Debris from the blown tire had flown sideways, into an empty lane and away from the follow truck. The lead trailer suffered a broken mud flap and a tear in the hydraulic hose for the liftgate. Neither of these was a big deal to repair. Within a couple of hours, with repairs completed and trailer tire replaced, the drivers were on their way. 

Getting the job done – as a team 

In talking to both drivers about this incident, they clearly believe that platooning made for a safer outcome. In situations like this, drivers feel safer when they are traveling together and looking out for each other. And, through the PlatoonPro driver training program, drivers sharpen their situational awareness skills and practice communicating with their partner over PlatoonPro’s private radio channel. 

Working together, the drivers created a safer environment for themselves on the side of the highway where they could review company policy, reason through the situation, and come to a logical conclusion about how to resolve it. 

By the time Derrick called me that evening, he and the other driver had the situation under control.  They had already inspected the damage, ordered a replacement tire, and contacted roadside service for assistance. At that point, given that there was no damage to the follow truck, Derrick could have continued on his way. But it looked like they could both still hit their delivery window, so the drivers made the call to stick together, and I supported that decision. 

I wasn’t surprised by how efficient they were–Peloton has policies and procedures in place, and our drivers are trained to follow those–but I was definitely relieved!

At the end of the day, the load was safely delivered

Because the drivers acted swiftly and decisively, the lettuce being transported in those 57-foot reefers was still in perfect condition when they reached their destination. If the trailers had been sidelined for too long, that lettuce would have turned into a soggy mess, and the customer wouldn’t have been too happy.  

By handling the situation on the spot, the drivers saved me hours of stress and lost sleep. I stayed up until I was sure they were back on the road. I didn’t mind, though; in my view, the drivers became company heroes that night. 

Interested in setting up a platooning pilot program for your fleet? Or just want to know more about PlatoonPro? Contact us at sales@peloton-tech.com.