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Peloton's Automated Following for trucks keeps the driver at the forefront

Literally -- it relies on a human to lead a platoon of autonomous trucks.

We still haven't been able to engineer a better driver than a human, so Peloton wants to make better use of what we've already got, instead of spending years or more working on replacing the human element entirely.

Lots of companies are out there, trying to remove the human element from driving as part of developing vehicle autonomy. Peloton -- not to be confused with the spin-class-at-home entity of the same name -- wants to take a different approach, using the human as a leader of a fleet of autonomous lemming trucks.

Peloton on Wednesday unveiled its Automated Following system. Peloton's tech is all about platooning, creating a massive snake of trucks that follow one another down the highway. It considers this Level 4 autonomy by SAE standards, which is true vehicle autonomy that's limited to certain modes or locations. However, unlike most Level 4 systems we've talked about in the past, there remains a human element to this one, albeit not in every truck in the platoon.

Automated Following still relies on a driver. Situated in the frontmost truck of the platoon, the human is still responsible for guiding the whole fleet using vehicle-to-vehicle communication, with unmanned trucks operating autonomously behind the lead vehicle.

Peloton thinks this unique strategy will help it deploy platooning systems faster and more efficiently, even though treating the human as a sensor doesn't totally jibe with the SAE definition of Level 4 autonomy. Nevertheless, it's a smart idea that could help alleviate some of the strain caused by the trucking industry's current driver shortage.

That system might still be several years away, but Peloton is also cooking up something a bit easier. It also has a driver-assist system called PlatoonPro. Here, there's a driver in the lead truck in charge of a two-truck platoon, but there's also a driver in the second truck. However, that second driver is only in charge of steering -- the PlatoonPro system controls the gas and brakes to maintain a proper (read: very close) following distance. Peloton has already tried this system out with six different customers, and it's shown to save an average of 7% in fuel costs.

Peloton isn't the only company working on platooning. After completing a run in its Level 3 automated development truck, Hyundai hopes to have a system in place in the 2020s. Not every automaker is on board with the idea, though -- we learned in January that Daimler abandoned its platooning development after the trucks kept getting split up, as the gas required for the second truck to catch up eliminated any efficiency benefits.