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Jul 2015
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July 21, 2015

Platooning – Not Just for the Enlisted


In 2012, there were more than 10.6 million large trucks registered in the United States according to data compiled by the Federal Highway Administration. NHTSA further reported that in the same year almost 4,000 people were killed and 104,000 more were injured as a result of crashes involving large trucks. Roughly two-thirds of those killed were occupants of a vehicle other than the truck. Human involvement is indisputably the greatest factor in vehicle crashes. NHTSA estimates that driver error is the critical reason for over ninety percent of crashes.

“Platooning” – What Is It?

Intelligent transport systems – including “platooning” – may be the solution we have been waiting for to combat highway traffic congestion and to reduce the number of accidents on the road. “Platooning” links vehicles through computing and communication, allowing automobiles to “talk” to each other on a region of the 5.9 GHz band set aside by Congress in 1999. Through vehicle-to-vehicle (“V2V”) communication, a vehicle can inform others around it when it changes velocity, acceleration or lane positioning. The system allows participating vehicles to form a single, efficient traveling unit, much like a train. As vehicles enter or leave a platoon, they can be steered by either a human driver or the car; only the distances between vehicles must be computer-controlled. Communication between vehicles and infrastructure (“V2I”) would provide an additional boost in efficiency by alerting vehicles of traffic conditions and suggesting modifications to speed, accelerating and lane positioning.

The system, even without V2I communication, could ultimately allow vehicles to follow one another almost bumper-to-bumper along the highway at 75 miles per hour, which would increase road capacity. This also has the positive side effect of mitigating the “accordion effect,” whereby slight accelerations and decelerations by a lead vehicle are propagated to and magnified by following vehicles.

Moreover, the close following distance reduces air resistance, which results in improved fuel economy for the entire platoon. A recent study released by a research team funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation concluded that trailing trucks benefit from 10 percent fuel savings, while leading trucks save 5 percent. In light of the fact that fuel costs account for approximately 30 to 40 percent of a carrier’s cost-per-mile, these savings would make a real economic impact.

The Current Stand on “Platooning”

There are no federal statutes or regulations that would get in the way of truck platooning. In fact, on August 18, 2014, NHTSA released an advance notice of a proposed rulemaking and a supporting research report on V2V communication. Deputy Administrator David Friedman said, “V2V" technology is ready to move toward implementation and this report highlights the work NHTSA and DOT are doing to bring this technology and its great safety benefits into the nation’s light vehicle fleet.” Contrast that approach with NHTSA’s “pump-the-brakes” stance on self-driving vehicle technology: the administration’s preliminary guidance regarding autonomous vehicles, released on May 30, 2013, did not recommend that states authorize operation of self-driving vehicles for purposes other than testing.

Each state, however, currently has following distance (tailgating) rules, some of which on their face prohibit truck platooning. Some statutes and regulations set a minimum following distance (ranging from 100 to 300 feet) that applies specifically to trucks. Others require trucks and other vehicles towing trailers to leave enough space so that another vehicle could safely overtake it and occupy the space. A platoon, by its very definition and purpose, violates these requirements.

At least one state legislature is responding to this development. On April 27, 2015, the California State Senate passed S.B. 431, which exempts any vehicle equipped with driver-assistive truck platooning technology from the 100-foot following distance requirement. The bill is now being considered by the California State Assembly. Lawmakers in other states may soon follow California’s lead.

The Future of “Platooning”

In a budgetary climate that prevents road authorities from being able to fill potholes, let alone install high-tech sensors and transmitters, the cost of implementing intelligent transport systems like V2I would likely be prohibitive without private support. Platooning, on the other hand, will likely be implemented through the commercial trucking industry without significant public expenditure. In fact, a report from Dutch research organization TNO predicts the commercial viability of platooning by 2020, while a report from ABI research projects that 7.7 million truck platooning systems will ship globally by 2025. If state legislatures remove the shroud of legal uncertainty around platooning created by current tailgating laws, then we will soon find ourselves traveling bumper-to-bumper at breakneck speed, into the future of commercial trucking.

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