Semi truck makers working on 'platoon' technology to save gas

We would not be surprised to see a bunch of self-driving cars and tractor-trailers on Interstate 40 in the next 10 to 20 years. Until then, we will have to drive carefully and trust that everyone else on Arkansas’ highways is doing the same.

At the same time, vehicle technology continues to advance. One of the latest innovations that the trucking industry is touting is a way to save millions of dollars on fuel -- but possibly putting those of us in cars and motorcycles at greater risk.

Safe ‘platooning’?

18-wheeler manufacturers Daimler and Navistar, and California company Peloton are developing technology to allow these huge trucks to “platoon,” or drive single-file just 30 to 50 feet apart. This allows the rear truck to enter the forward truck’s slipstream, cutting down on drag and saving 5 to 10 percent in fuel.

Obviously, platooning is not currently safe at highway speeds. What Daimler, Navistar and Peloton are working on is technology that lets two semis “talk” to each other.

For example, Peloton’s scheme is to use cellular technology to coordinate communication between two semis from a central clearinghouse. Such a system may also use GPS, cruise control, radar detection and cameras to keep the trucks so close together without colliding. And, of course, humans will be in the drivers seats to take over in case of emergency, the companies say.

Safety questioned

There is still a lot we don’t know about truck platooning technology -- most importantly, whether it will affect the number of people who are injured and killed in truck accidents every year. The executive directorof the Governors Highways Safety Association wondered aloud to The Washington Post if, for example, platoons will have an imposed speed limit, and if they will be restricted to the right lane so they won’t block traffic.

More than diesel prices, traffic safety must be a priority to trucking companies and regulators. Semi trucks are enormous and can be terribly destructive when not properly handled. Hopefully, if this technology becomes a reality nobody will be put in serious danger because of a malfunction, poor training or other reasons.

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