Fuel-saving and emissions-slashing truck platooning technology is advancing rapidly as vehicle manufacturers and motor carriers increase testing on public roads.

Daimler Trucks plans new tests in Oregon and Nevada and will start trials with its fleet customers in “real-life” situations next year, the company said at the North American Commercial Vehicle show in Atlanta this week. Platooning systems digitally tether two or more trucks to reduce following distance and save fuel.

The Daimler technology uses vehicle-to-vehicle communications to slash braking reaction times to about 0.2 or 0.3 seconds, which allows trucks to follow closely. Humans take as much as a full second to respond, the company said.

Nearly every other manufacturer and technology company exhibiting at the trade show also talked about the potential for platooning.

“It will be in the market toward the end of the decade as a viable option,” said Troy Clarke, chief executive of Navistar International Corp.

Already, nine states have regulations that allow platooning and more are expected to follow, Josh Switkes, chief executive of Peloton Technology Inc., a Mountain View, Calif., developer of platooning technology told Trucks.com. They include Arkansas, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, Nevada, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas. Arizona plans to allow limited commercial deployment, he said.

As many as 29 states may allow platooning under existing discretionary following distance laws, according to Peloton, which expects to have fleets testing its technology next year.

Motor carriers are expressing interest.

“There is a great appetite from fleets to find efficiency gains and work toward an autonomous environment,” said Göran Nyberg, president of Volvo Trucks North America. Volvo also is testing platooning on public roads in the U.S., but Nyberg said he’s not sure when the technology will be deployed commercially to transport goods.

Max Fuller, executive chairman of U.S. Xpress Enterprises Inc., a large Chattanooga, Tenn., trucking company, said he is watching the technology development carefully, and told Trucks.com that he is interested in technology that makes economic sense and improves efficiency.

For example, if the technology gets to the point where drivers in the following trucks can sleep, “the real fun will start,” said Martin Daum, the global chief executive of Daimler Trucks.

Letting following and lead drivers sleep in alternating shifts would create a 24-hour transport system and greatly increase freight efficiency. It would also allow them to meet federal limits on trucker driving time.

Platooning is expected to provide significant fuel savings and emissions reduction, according to researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

pioneering vehicle platooning tech graph

(Source: Wabco)

An analysis by the federal lab found that of the 169.8 billion miles driven by tractor-trailer combinations in 2014, almost 66 percent could have been driven by trucks in a platoon formation. Through tests and other studies, the lab calculated fuel savings of 6.4 percent for each team of platooned vehicles. The researchers concluded widespread adoption of platooning could cut fuel consumption by an amount equal to 1.1 percent of U.S. oil imports and slash carbon emissions by 15.3 million metric tons of CO2 annually, about a 0.22 percent reduction nationally.

Trucking has a significant impact on U.S. energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, according to SAE International, a global association of aerospace, automotive and commercial-vehicle engineers. According to 2014 data, the industry consumed 29.1 billion gallons of fuel and emitted 6.9 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide, the engineering group said.

And that’s likely to increase because freight transport is growing faster than passenger transportation, SAE International said in a recent report. The trade group also expects to see an increase in the share of trucking in total freight activity.

The industry is eager to deploy platooning technology, but senior executives say there are still major hurdles to overcome.

“I don’t know how comfortable people are driving their Toyota Corolla down the road and seeing a guy in an 80,000-pound truck reading a newspaper,” said Jonathan Randall, senior vice president of North American sales for Mack Trucks. “There are a lot of things that need to be done not only from an equipment standpoint, but also from a legislative standpoint and an acceptance level from the general motoring public.”

One challenge is “arbitrating which truck goes in front and how they split fuel savings between different fleets,” said Tim Proctor, director of engineering at Columbus, Ind., engine supplier Cummins Inc.

The technology might be best for fleets that run multiple trucks from point A to B and back, said Fred Andersky, director of government and industry affairs for Bendix Commercial Vehicle Systems of Elyria, Ohio.

“But I’m not so sure the typical owner-operator would necessarily find themselves in the opportunity to be able to platoon, at least not for a while,” he said.

There are still significant liability issues.

“It’s one thing if you’re Fleet A and you’re platooning your trucks and something happens, you’re not going to sue yourself,” Andersky said. “But if you’re Fleet A running with Fleet B and Fleet B plows into the back of Fleet A’s truck, who’s responsible?”

While most senior industry executives say digitally connected vehicles combined with the increasing use of autonomous driving features, including automatic braking, lane departure warning and adaptive cruise control, will improve safety, they know that rolling out platooning will take considerable driver training.

For example, pushing trucks closer together on the road is “asking drivers to do something we’ve spent the last 50 years telling them not to do,” Andersky said.

Editor’s Note: Trucks.com staff writers Ryan ZumMallen and Clarissa Hawes contributed to this report.

Read next: Peloton is Blazing a Trail for Trucking Startups

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