Piloting large commercial trucks on the highway is no longer a science fiction dream, thanks to interim steps that includes rigs traveling in semi-autonomous platoons.

Field trials involving truck platooning are already happening in Europe. In Germany, NXP Semiconductors and its partners have demoed platooning live on Munich roads, showcasing traffic signal and vehicle synchronisation and technology that protects road users based on secure vehicle-to-everything technology (V2X).

A big proponent of platooning, NXP is supplying the technology to make automated driving safer. The company recently introduced a new radar microcontroller, the NXP S32R27, which it said will improve platooning by allowing trucks to travel semi-autonomously in tighter formation.

The NXP S32R27 radar MCU offers a leap in performance of four times over the previous MPC577X product. This means higher accuracy and safety for applications such as collision avoidance, lane change assist, autonomous emergency braking, radar cocooning with 360° perception, or adaptive cruise control, according to the company. In intelligent transport systems, vulnerable road users (VRUs) like pedestrians, motorcycles and bicycles can be detected and tracked much faster.

“The first truck is manually driven and the rest follow as trailers,” Lars Reger, VP of new business and R&D for NXP’s Automotive Business Unit, told Forbes in an interview. “In essence, the trucks are attached by an electronic, virtual tow bar so that they can follow each other within a very short distance, 7 metres, at 80 kilometres.”

NXP and its partners, DAF Trucks, TNO and Ricardo, previously achieved a breakthrough truck platooning distance of 0.5 seconds between trucks. While platooning at 80km/h, trucks that were linked wirelessly via V2X technology, along with high-performance camera and radar systems, were able to maintain a distance of 11 metres flawlessly. The consortium is now cooperating to further bring down the minimum distance between trucks by another 40% (to 0.3 seconds which equals 7 metres at 80km/h). In this new context, the platooning system will need to reliably react 30 times faster than a human driver. This requires the wireless communication between trucks to take place in the timeframe of milliseconds.

This breakthrough will be achieved through a variety of technology enhancements that improve safety, including the integration of a sensor fusion and control system that can create, monitor and maintain platooning and driving modes in a functionally safe way, even with the occurrence of external hazards or internal malfunctioning system-behaviour. Even in the latter situations, the convoy will operate fail-safe.

The system will also need to operate at a high functional safety level to enable the shorter driving distance safely. This will be accomplished by using ASIL ("functional safety") qualified components from NXP such as microcontrollers, microprocessors, power management ICs and networking components. The basis for the system development is the NXP BlueBox platform that incorporates most of the aforementioned components.

"Helping platoons react 30 times faster than humans is a tall order that we are not taking lightly," said Ron Borsboom, Director Product Development at DAF Trucks. "While there is still a lot of research and development required to make this a reality, we are working with NXP on an ambitious plan to demonstrate the improved response time in 2017."