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AASHTO Journal

Regular Commercial Truck Platoons Said to Soon Reach U.S. Highways

In a technology-focused news story with major implications for eroding the Highway Trust Fund, the Washington Post reported that commercial truck operators may adopt the use of regular truck platooning as soon as 2018.

"A wave of new technology intended to make trucks safer – using radar, cameras and reflective light scanning – is sweeping the industry," the Post said Oct. 22. "By next year, much of it may be combined to put pairs of trucks on the road at a distance that before would not have been possible or safe."

The story explained that a pair of electronically tethered trucks operating close together at highway speeds can save significant amounts of diesel fuel for both, by reducing wind resistance for the trailing truck as well as curbing air turbulence that would normally roll off the back and sides of the lead vehicle.

If truckers quickly put platoons of two or more heavy trucks on the nation's highways and cut their diesel fuel burn, the story said it could amount to millions of dollars saved by operators of major truck fleets as they reduce fuel purchases.

capitol0816.jpgAnd that could also begin to cut into the amount of revenue the Highway Trust Fund generates each year.

Per-gallon federal taxes on diesel fuel make up the fund's second-largest revenue source, with gasoline taxes paid largely by passenger vehicle drivers generating the most. U.S. Treasury data indicate that gas tax receipts reached nearly $26.604 billion for all of fiscal 2017, while diesel taxes collected mainly from freight-hauling trucks generated $10.736 billion. (See related story.)

But in a year when gas tax revenue increased only 1.8 percent, diesel tax collections grew 4.6 percent as the nation's fleet of cargo trucks and other diesel-burning vehicles ramped up their activity.

And overall in fiscal 2017, Treasury reports, HTF collections flattened as a big drop in revenue from a retail tax on truck sales more than offset the mild growth in fuel taxes.

Should the trucking sector rapidly take to platooning and enough drivers start shaving the amount of fuel those units use, that increase in fuel efficiency would of course mean those trucks burn less fuel to cover the same distance as in the past – thereby contributing less money into the trust fund per miles traveled.

Already, more truckers are driving with more efficient engines than a few years ago. And they are rapidly embracing a range of other efficiency-boosting technologies, such as adding aerodynamically shaped hoods atop cabs and skirts underneath the trailers to cut wind resistance of each unit.

As with the passenger vehicle fleet, where drivers of ever more efficient passenger cars and light trucks are paying less per mile into the trust fund as those vehicles make up a growing part of the nation's fleet, the trucking fleet is trying to cut its fuel burn.

Now, if truckers are also frequently running two or more trucks at a time in platoons along the highway system, the sector's overall efficiency will increase faster and cut the total amount each truck pays into the trust fund in fuel taxes.

Until recently, the mix of technologies necessary to bring platooning into the real world was developing behind the scenes and on test tracks. Now, major truck builders Navistar and Daimler have begun to test truck platoons in some states and have been talking with freight haulers about working them into regular cargo service.    

But the Post reported that a California company, Peloton, "may leapfrog the big boys to have paired trucks on the road next year."

The story said Peloton, partnering with truck fleet management firm Omnitracs, "plans to operate a central clearinghouse that communicates through a cellular connection with trucks whose companies have subscribed to their service."

Using that service, truckers whose rigs have all the requisite data-driven communications and operating equipment – GPS, cameras, advanced cruise control, radar – could pair up with others driving the same route even if from another fleet. While drivers would steer the vehicles and could take full control as needed, computers both on board and in a Peloton command center would shrink and manage the distance between the two, plus control acceleration and braking for the following truck much faster than a human.

Backers say the systems can make highways safer for everyone by reducing truck-involved accidents.

The Post noted that of 4,317 fatalities in highway crashes involving heavy trucks last year, "72 percent of them weren't in trucks, but rather passenger cars. An additional 11 percent were pedestrians, bicyclists, roadway workers or police officers standing beside the highway, according to statistics released this month."

But the story said although cargo truckers see the safety benefits, they will be lured to use platooning by the potential to cut fuel bills that can run as high as 20 percent of a trucking company's operating costs.

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Above: Three Federal Highway Administration tractor-trailer rigs with blue tractors operate as a synchronized platoon on busy Interstate 66 in northern Virginia. Image / FHWA test video.

10/27/2017
Questions regarding this article may be directed to editor@aashtojournal.org.