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Platooning: Coming to a Highway Near You

Automotive Alert Brandon M. Krajewski, Kevin Long

While the public’s attention has been focused on autonomous vehicle technology with its promise of a truly driverless experience, assisted and automated technologies are already changing the rules of the road for consumer and commercial vehicles. While “lane departure warning” and “adaptive cruise control” have become common phrases in the world of consumer vehicles, one word those in the commercial trucking industry are hearing more and more often is “platooning.”

Platooning - The Modern Road Train

Platooning refers to vehicle-to-vehicle communications technology that permits a line of trucks to follow each other closely using automated speed and spacing controls, resulting in reduced drag. Once a front truck and the following trucks are electronically linked, or “platooned,” acceleration and braking are controlled by the lead truck. The following trucks are not completely autonomous once in the platoon, however, as the drivers still need to steer the trucks and monitor the road for any unexpected situations.

This type of “super cruise control” allows trucks to follow each other at much closer distances than normally considered safe (40-80ft), which improves the aerodynamics of the entire platoon. The results are improved fuel efficiency, reduced traffic congestion, and improved highway safety. According to estimates by one provider of the enabling technology, operators can obtain fuel savings of up to 7 percent while platooning (4.5 percent for the lead truck and up to 10 percent for those following). Given that fuel expenses are one of the largest expenses for any company operating commercial vehicles, platooning technology stands to improve the bottom line for transportation companies around the country. 

So why have you not seen platoons of big rigs passing you on the interstate? Most states have enacted following-too-close (FTC) laws that require a minimum following distance of 300-500 feet for commercial vehicles traveling on highways. States that do not have a defined minimum distance generally have statues that require a “reasonable and prudent” distance between vehicles. At a following distance of 40-80 feet, platooning would violate existing FTC statues with a defined minimum distance, and no one wants to be the test case on whether such a distance is “reasonable and prudent” under the circumstances.

Momentum Grows Among State Legislators to Allow Platooning

Fortunately for commercial operators, state legislatures have started clearing roadblocks to platooning by enacting exemptions from FTC laws. In 2016, Utah became the first state to exempt connected trucks from the state’s two-second rule for safe following distance. Since then, twenty-three states, including Indiana and Wisconsin, have enacted or revised rules to allow for platooning or platoon technology testing. The trend has continued this year, with South Dakota, Pennsylvania, and Michigan passing legislation to pave the way for platooning.

Already companies and organizations such as Volvo Trucks, Daimler Trucks, PACCAR, Navistar, the U.S. Army, Partners for Advanced Transportation Technology at U.C. Berkeley, and Peloton Technology are developing platooning systems. Volvo has conducted platooning tests in California, Virginia, and Europe. Since 2016, Navistar has been testing its platooning technology through its SuperTruck program in partnership with Texas A&M.

While the National Highway Transportation Safety Agency has not yet issued regulations related to platooning, the agency did issue notices of proposed rulemaking in 2017 and 2018 related to vehicle-to-vehicle communications. It is only a matter of time before the federal regulatory framework is in place to further support platooning technology.

For now, commercial operators face a patchwork of state laws that limit the potential for efficiencies for long-haul transportation. However, as more states revise their laws to allow platooning, commercial operators will be able to take advantage of this new technology to reduce their expenses, increase their efficiency, and provide greater safety for drivers and travelers alike.

For more information or questions about platooning or autonomous vehicle technology, please contact your Quarles & Brady attorney or: