Hodgepodge of Traffic Laws Could Stymie Truck Platooning

July 19, 2017 by Tiffany Hsu, @tiffkhsu

Truck platooning, which features digitally tethered lines of heavy-duty commercial vehicles driving in formation to reduce drag, is many things: technologically advanced, environmentally beneficial, publicly questioned.

What it might not be is legal.

Existing state laws prohibiting vehicles from following each other too closely might present a major hitch in mainstreaming truck platoons, according to libertarian think tank Competitive Enterprise Institute.

In a document released Wednesday and designed with legislators in mind, the Washington, D.C. group laid out current rules in each state as well potential amendments that would clear platoons for public roads.

Convoys are said to boost fuel economy, limit traffic congestion and improve highway safety using a carefully calibrated mix of sensor-guided automation and human monitoring. But the strategy could run afoul of varying rules already on the books in many states.

The regulations vary. Many are categorized by vehicle class. And, often, mandates use differing metrics to measure how autos should be separated.

Depending on the state, some of those gauges – time and distance between vehicles – are explicit. Others are more subjective.

There’s the “reasonable and prudent” standard, which requires a driver to keep enough space ahead, usually several hundred feet, to stop in an emergency. The “sufficient space” measure requires operators – often those behind the wheel in heavy trucks and groups of caravanning vehicles – to give other road users enough room to safely enter and exit gaps between vehicles.

Many of these rules effectively ban truck platooning. But amendments could fix that, according to Marc Scribner, the CEI transportation policy expert who composed the report.

For example, Scribner provided sample language that could be appended to existing code in California: “This section does not apply to the operator of any non-leading vehicle traveling in a procession of vehicles if the speed of each vehicle is automatically coordinated.”

Platooning technology already counts many lawmakers among its fans. Utah authorized testing of connected vehicles in 2015, followed by Florida in 2016. This year, Arkansas, Georgia, North and South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas have all approved platooning trials or exempted platoons from follow-too-closely regulations.

In certain states, though, making allowances for platooning might be difficult, especially when existing rules don’t distinguish between vehicle classes.

But the pressure to do so will only increase as prototype platoons rack up substantial road time.

Three Volvo semi-trucks – two of them operated by robots – platooned on the 110 Freeway in Southern California in March. The 12-mile journey – a test by the California Department of Transportation, Volvo Group of North America, U.C. Berkeley and local agencies – involved a lead driver trailed by two vehicles controlled by computers and sensors and monitored by human drivers.

Truck platooning platform provider Peloton Technology of Mountain View, Calif. raised $60 million in April during a second round of funding. A slew of major trucking manufacturers, including Navistar, Daimler, Delphi, Continental and Cummins, have invested in platooning technology.

“Within the next few years, automated vehicle technology could reduce the cost of transporting consumer and manufacturing goods around the country if state lawmakers make small changes to state driving laws to allow platooning technology,” Scribner said.

Read next: Trucking Experts Say Platooning is Near, Mull Cross-Carrier Partnerships

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