The debate over autonomous vehicles (AVs) is no longer about if, but when they'll become ubiquitous. But before AVs take over city streets, the first real-world application of a low-level autonomous technology is already developing in the commercial sector of long-distance trucking. Although connected vehicle technology, such as platooning, is not as thrilling as fully autonomous vehicles, it's an important step toward the day when we can ditch the steering wheel altogether.
Platooning refers to vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications technology that utilizes radar, GPS, and Wi-Fi to link up two or more vehicles. Platooned vehicles don't drive themselves, but are autonomous in the way they communicate with each other. The commercial trucking industry, which deploys fleets of heavy trucks to ship goods over long distances, is particularly interested in this technology.
Once a front truck and rear trucks are electronically linked, or “platooned,” they accelerate and break together. This “super cruise control” allows trucks to safely follow each other at a closer distance (typically between 50 to 80 feet), taking advantage of drag and aerodynamics to improve fuel efficiency, safety, and traffic congestion. The platooned trucks act like a train without the tracks. Using this analogy, the lead truck acts as the engine and controls the acceleration and breaking for the rear trucks. However, the rear truck drivers still need to steer their vehicles. Trucking companies would use platooning technology on freeways primarily, with the driver disengaging the systems when exiting the freeway to rest, fuel up, or deliver cargo.
The automated and connected vehicle company, Peloton Technology, explains its platooning technology well in an online video. Peloton claims fuel savings of more than 7 percent when platooning (4.5% savings for the lead truck, and 10% for the rear truck). For an industry that spends over $100 billion on fuel each year, these are substantial savings.
Last year, the Competitive Enterprise Institute's (CEI) Senior Fellow Marc Scribner examined state laws that applied to AV platooning. Scribner found that while AVs are generally not expressly prohibited in most jurisdictions, one conflict that platooning proponents will need to reconcile is that many states have following-too-closely (FTC) statutes. These laws are found in state motor vehicle codes and prohibit how closely one vehicle can follow another on the road. Because platooning's benefits result from the technology's ability to keep two or more vehicles in close proximity, states have begun revising their FTC statutes to allow platooning outright or authorize the testing of platooning technology on state roads.
The CEI report identified 22 states with numerical FTC rules that would apply to potential truck platoons. Of those states, four — Arkansas, Michigan, Nevada, and Tennessee — have passed legislation providing an exemption for platooning from their FTC law. For good measure, Texas, North Carolina, and Georgia — three states CEI did not identify as requiring FTC exemptions — passed legislation making it clear that platooning is legal in those states. Finally, Florida and Utah passed legislation authorizing platooning testing or pilot programs. Utah was the first state to allow platooning testing, passing legislation in 2015. According to our research, lawmakers in 10 states have introduced 14 bills on platooning in 2017.
Although many states are racing to become the next Silicon Valley of AVs, not everyone is on board with opening up their state roads to truck platooning. Last year, former Missouri Governor Jay Nixon (D) vetoed a bill (MO HB 1733) to allow platooning after the legislation sailed through the state legislature, citing safety concerns.
We could see commercial use of platooning technology on our roads by the end of this year. In March, a three-car platoon successfully traversed 12 miles down Southern California's 110 Freeway, part of a joint demonstration of platooning technology by the the California Department of Transportation, Volvo, and U.C. Berkeley. Meanwhile, state lawmakers will continue to pass legislation clearing the way for the technology on their roadways.