This week Daimler Trucks tested what it hails as the next big step in autonomous driving. However, unlike the VW Bug shaped Google cars that capture headlines, Daimler demonstrated a three-truck platoon in public on the autobahn that is much more radical in its potential impact on the trucking industry. This demonstration showed the trucks going from manual driving, linking up electronically, and then traveling autonomously as close as 49 feet apart.
“Platooning” links vehicles through computing and communication, allowing vehicles to “speak” with one another on a specific band set aside by Congress in 1999. Through these channels, a vehicle can inform others around it when there are changes in velocity, acceleration, or lane positioning. The platoon process begins with each truck having a driver, and the lead vehicle asks a second vehicle to join and flashes lights visible to all other motorists. Once the second truck has been linked then the process can be repeated for up to ten trucks. Each truck would have access to a video link of the visuals of the lead truck. Once connected, the drivers remove their hands from the wheel and feet from accelerator. While the conditions are ideal for platooning, the driver is to remain focused on surroundings and pilot the vehicle between lanes.
Currently, there are no federal statutes or regulations regarding platooning. However, in 2014 NHTSA released an advance notice of a proposed rulemaking and supported research reports on inter-vehicular communication. This is the opposite approach than that taken by the agency on self-driving vehicle technology, which hasn’t released authority to states to authorize anything more than testing.
Recently several states, including Missouri, have either passed legislation or introduced bills to introduce platooning programs. Under current Missouri law, the traveling distance between trucks must be at least 300 feet. The proposed legislation would suspend the minimum following distance without substituting a new length on a 200 mile stretch of Interstate 70. This bill, if passed, would open the Missouri highway to platoon piloting programs by spring 2017. A recent Dutch report maintains platooning will be commercially viable globally as early as 2020.
These programs are important in that approximately 30-40% of longhaul fleets’ operating expenses are dedicated to fuel, and initial tests have shown that platooning makes the front truck 4.5% more fuel efficient and the rear truck 10% more fuel efficient, with cost benefits projected at approximately $14,000 per truck per year. The benefits brought by platooning could lead to a significant economic impact. Furthermore, the freeing up of driving tasks could allow a driver to better use his efforts to maintain vigilance of his surroundings and could be critical in avoiding accidents. Platooning may have other side benefits too, such as increasing road space and mitigating of the traffic accordion effect. For example, the same Dutch study estimated two trucks platooning with a nine meter gap at 60 miles per hour would effectively decrease the “size” of the trucks on the road by 46%.
While this technology is still potentially several years down the road for U.S. companies and drivers, the reality is fast approaching. States and companies would be well to encourage research opportunities to develop effective safety and operating techniques so that we can be ready when that time does come.
This article was written by Andrew Laquet associate attorney at Roberts Perryman PC. Andrew’s focuses his practice on transportation, insurance defense and complex litigation.
Roberts Perryman has been a leader in transportation defense for over 50 years with offices in St. Louis and Springfield, MO and Belleville, IL. http://www.robertsperryman.com
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