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Platooning Trucks are Hitting the Highway

Truck industry executives are furthering the advance of driver-assistance technology--called platooning--rather than promoting driverless trucks, says Daimler Trucks North America CEO, Roger Nielsen, speaking at a press conference at the American Trucking Association Management Conference and Exhibition, according to Transport Topics.

Platooning--defined as two semi-autonomous trucks moving as one unit, separated by a distance of 30 to 50 feet--combines safety systems with vehicle communication that allows a pair of trucks to travel down the highway in an aerodynamic formation, conserving fuel and enhancing safety, Nielson says.

Fans of bike racing and NASCAR understand the concept of getting into someone else's slipstream, Ashely Halsey III writes in The Washington Post.

"Whether in spandex or NASCAR fire-retardant suits, racers know they can save energy and fuel by tucking close behind another rider or race car," Halsey writes.


Trucking companies spent approximately $90 billion on diesel fuel last year.

Drivers' labor is the greatest expense, with fuel coming in second and amounting to 20 percent of trucking companies' operating costs.

"A truck tucked in the slipstream of another tractor-trailer can save 10 percent on fuel. But the truck in front also will burn about 5 percent less fuel as part of the drag on a truck plowing into the wind is caused by turbulent air that tumbles off the top and sides of the trailer," Halsey writes in The Washington Post.

When two trucks pair up closely, the air flows more smoothly from the first to the second vehicle, reducing that turbulence.

Trials conducted by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory show that trucks leading a platoon saved 2.2 percent to 5.3 percent in fuel consumption, with trailing vehicles saving an estimated 2.8 percent to 9.7 percent on fuel.

In combination, two trucks save roughly 6.4 percent in fuel costs.

Does Platooning Save Lives?

According to the trucking industry, research has repeatedly shown that driving in formation not only improves fuel economy, it slashes the severity of accidents.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: of the 4,317 people who died in crashes involving large trucks last year, 72 percent were not in trucks, but rather in passenger cars.

Trucks are involved in 11 percent of traffic fatalities, even though they only make up 4 percent of all vehicles on the road, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

Start-Up Peloton: A Leader in Platooning

While most of the big trucking companies, such as Navistar, Daimler, Delphi, Continental and Volvo, are pursuing platooning designs, Peloton Technology, the Mountain View, CA start-up company platooning system is being viewed as a leading-edge technology with great promise.

Peloton co-founder Steve Boyd, who is now conducting commercial trials with fleet partners, says the banding together of trucking companies is essential as are standards among competing companies.

Interoperability and standardization are important, Boyd says, as economies of scale will be improved when competing companies share platooning rides.

"Theoretically, this way Wal-Mart can take advantage of platooning when the only other truck on the road is an Amazon vehicle," Boyd says.

Peloton's system is designed to let both trucks communicate to determine if their speed and breaking capabilities, weight load, body density and other features are compatible.

GPS and radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology creates a virtual geographic boundary for the trucks. Other programming tools determine when weather, traffic, topography and environmental factors deem platooning appropriate.

States Greenlight Platooning

While industry standards are being developed, Michigan, Arkansas and Tennessee have given platooning the green light, and 11 other states are considering approvals, Boyd says.

This approval is vitally important as currently trucks are not allowed to tailgate.

Rather, 29 states have laws requiring vehicles to keep a "reasonable and prudent' distance between them, without specifying what that distance is, according to The Washington Post.


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