During the next year or so, if you’re traveling out on a rural highway, you’re likely to see a couple of large 18-wheeler trucks traveling very close together – perhaps just 30 or 50 feet apart. It will be hard to miss them since they’ll probably be traveling by at about 70 miles per hour says Arkady Frekhtman, one of the New York tractor trailer accident lawyers at the F&A Injury Law Firm in Brooklyn, NY.
In the past, such sights were rare since it was illegal in most states for vehicles to travel so close together. However, “truck platooning” will soon be slowly changing the trucking industry. The term basically refers to trucking companies electing to have their (highly automated) large trucks travel very close to one another to save on fuel costs – while hopefully cutting down on large truck accidents — and reaping environmental benefits.
Depending on whether drivers are still used once all the automated technology has been set up, truck companies may also save a bit on paying highly experienced drivers.
Let’s take a brief look now at the current dangers that large trucks pose for everyone on the nation’s highways before reviewing the aerodynamics of truck platooning. That science may eventually prove much more useful and profitable to many – especially the owners of the country’s largest trucking fleet management systems.
What are the safety hazards posed by large trucks each year?
Those who claim truck platooning may improve truck safety partially base their arguments on all the high-tech equipment that’s being installed in the truck platooning vehicles. They’ll be using special cameras, radar and reflective light scanning. The also have controls common to other high-tech vehicles such as GPS, collision avoidance radar equipment and advanced cruise control.
If all those technologies are operating correctly, there’s reasonable hope that fewer people will be seriously hurt or killed in future highway truck collisions.
How does the science of aerodynamics benefit truck platooning?
Just as bicyclists usually want to travel right behind others in front of them to benefit from the aerodynamic benefit of “drafting” (which can ease their paddling efforts), technology companies know that they can produce rather similar benefits to large trucks traveling close together.
What exactly happens when two 18-wheeler trucks drive extremely close together with one just about 30 to 50 feet behind the other? The lead truck will encounter the bulk of the headwinds on the highway, making the journey more fuel efficient for the truck traveling right behind it.
What’s fascinating is that even the lead truck realizes some (lesser) fuel savings due to having another truck following it. Of course, the constant flow of computer data between the trucks must be operating flawlessly for the vehicles to maneuver properly heading down the road.
Although it’s unclear how human drivers will be positioned or used in the fully automated platoon trucks, one expert has said that they may one day operate more like airplane pilots than drivers – constantly monitoring the data flowing between the two large trucks. These drivers might also be prepared to intervene when sudden, highly unusual traffic and weather conditions develop.
Recently, an amazing test drive of platooning trucks was staged in Colorado. The truck company Otto delivered 2,000 cases of beer between Fort Collins and Colorado Springs (about 130 miles apart). Apparently, no human hands were required to steer during that fully automated highway run.
What types of legislative and other changes are needed to usher in this technology?
At present, only nine states allow truck platooning. About 29 others have laws on the books that require vehicles to keep prudent distances between one another without indicating an exact distance. Therefore, many states will need to revisit their traffic and highway distance laws and update them before platooning can become fully legal on their roads.
Here are a few of the other needed changes that government groups and industry must address.
Whether we’ll all be ready to watch 80,000-pound trucks pass us by on freeways during the next few years remains to be seen. However, barring any catastrophic test drives during the coming months, platooning trucks are likely to grow in numbers soon.
Companies like Daimler, Navistar, Peloton and Omnitracs are moving quickly to be among the first to successfully manage these types of platoons.
As for hopes that platooning will help improve truck safety on the road, that may take many years to determine. Until then, we can probably at least count on some environmental benefits since far less gas fuel may soon be consumed by the trucking industry.