Some are asking the critical question: Is it really safe for two Class 8 heavy duty commercial motor vehicles to tailgate one another? Many states across the country – and even globally – are currently weighing this very question. The emergence of platooning technology has ignited a safety debate where the questions remain elusive.
Companies pushing platooning technologies contend that the emergence of technologies that couple with vehicle-to-vehicle communications would allow digitally connected vehicles to follow each other at a close distance without any safety problems. This digital linking of trucks would allow the truck drivers to – not literally – take a back seat. Trucks would both accelerate and brake together.
Platooning Has Advantages
Platooning does save on fuel in many cases. It does this through a process called “slipstreaming,” which allows a vehicle to ride the wake of the vehicle immediately in front of it. Some say that when a truck rides the wake of a vehicle in front of it, fuel savings can amount to up to 10 percent. When you add those numbers up across the industry, you are looking at savings that add up to lots of money.
According to data from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), 72 percent of fatalities involving a large commercial motor vehicle happened when the truck hit another passenger car. Platooning proponents contend that the technologies built into platooning systems may go a long way to reducing those numbers.
They say that the real-time data gathering techniques and near-instantaneous reactions made by the technology installed on the truck can respond even quicker than a human can. There are generally cameras and sensors placed around the vehicle. Others say it is this very technology that could prove dangerous.
Platooning Has Disadvantages
Safety advocates wonder if platooning tractor-trailers is really safe. When discussing the technologies that are used in platooning, they are generally connected through a GPS, cellular, or strong WiFi connection. What if there is a disruption in the connection during a critical safety event?
Another question surrounds what the optimal distance between each vehicle should be. If the optimal distance is too close, would that make platooning inherently unsafe? Seconds count when it comes to following too closely, and if a large commercial motor vehicle is following too closely, might a machine be able to make a decision fast enough? There are two sides to the argument.
Platooning is Coming
No matter what safety advocates or platooning companies or fleets think about the issue, it is already being tested and is likely to appear on a road near you sometime within the next decade. All the talk is on semi-autonomous trucks, and platooning is simply an extension of this technology. Allowing a machine or series of sensors connected to a central computing unit to control a heavy-duty commercial motor vehicle is a lot closer than one may think.
Fortunately, there will always be a place for a truck driver in the cab. Even if trucks are platooned, there is no guarantee that their reaction time will be enough, so a human hand will always be desired. Of course, the overall goal is to lower the number of those injured or killed on our nation’s roads, and if platooning can get that done, then many say, why not give it a try?
A lot more testing still needs to be done, and many states are hard at it. In the end, whether or not we will see platooning blossom, and in what form, will depend on the platooning tests currently underway in several states. As companies and municipalities team up to test the viability of these technologies, expect to hear a lot more about how safe or unsafe platooning is.