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Platooning and Dedicated Truck Lanes

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Interest continues to grow in making use of partial automation to enable big-rigs to travel close together in platoons on long-distance highways. In addition to reduced accidents from partial automation (lane-keeping and connected adaptive cruise control), platooning offers significant reductions in fuel consumption.

Two platooning demonstrations have been carried out recently in Europe. Daimler Trucks in March operated a three-truck platoon on an active German autobahn, with 15-meter (50-ft.) separation between them. The video showed that when a car cut in between platooning trucks, the automation system quickly increased the spacing to 165 ft. And in April, the first cross-border truck platooning took place, as six platoons from several countries converged on the port of Rotterdam.

In this country, the legislatures of Florida and Missouri have taken action on truck platooning so far this year. Florida’s new autonomous vehicle law allows testing of semi-autonomous platoons on the state’s highways, but a companion measure that would waive the current minimum following distance of 300 ft. failed to pass. The Missouri Senate gave unanimous support to a transportation bill that includes a truck platooning pilot program; it awaits a decision by the House. James Pflum of Missouri DOT points to I-70 in the state as the logical test-bed for truck platooning.

A Silicon Valley startup company, Peloton Technology, is working actively with truck fleets, manufacturers, and state DOTs to carry out pilot projects using its semi-automation technology in two-truck platoons. The company’s business model offers the system to operators at cost, plus a fee for every mile platooned. It is preparing for on-road tests with several fleets on Texas highways this year.

A recent study of autonomous trucking by consulting firm Roland Berger identified five potential stages of automation, with driver-on-board platooning as stage 3. The firm estimated the incremental cost of equipping trucks for each stage, and its estimate for stage 3 is $6,200 per vehicle, which it thinks could be recovered via savings in fuel use and reduced accidents (with the latter providing the largest share of cost savings).

Another recent study, by Princeton Consultants, found that only 28% of the industry people it surveyed expected automation to have a moderate to large near-term impact on trucking. But Princeton’s Steve Sashihara told Fleet Owner that the longer-term impact could be significant. That’s because the industry confronts an aging workforce and a chronic driver shortage. He thinks automation could transform long-distance trucking, especially when platooning can be done without driver intervention. Current regulations limit drivers to 11 hours per day, after which they must have an eight-hour break—but a fully autonomous truck could operate nearly 24 hours a day.

And that brings me back to the topic of dedicated truck lanes. The FHWA’s Freight Facts and Figures 2015 projects truck freight doubling (in dollar value) between 2007 and 2040. In Reason Foundation’s 2013 “Interstate 2.0” study, we reviewed detailed data from FHWA’s Freight Analysis Framework for every long-distance Interstate highway. Based on FAF’s corridor-by-corridor projections, we identified 11 major corridors in which 2040 truck vehicle miles of travel (VMT) would equal or exceed 40% of total VMT. Seven of these were multi-state corridors, including major portions of I-10, I-30, I-40, I-70, I-80, and I-81. Those would be obvious candidates for dedicated truck lanes, which would be welcomed by motorists and truckers alike.

The impact of those projections is starting to sink in. At an April hearing of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, Chairman Bill Shuster (R, PA) suggested that dedicated truck lanes (DTLs) might be needed to cope with this growth. Also that month, Georgia DOT announced plans for what could well be the nation’s first dedicated truck lanes—on I-75 between Macon and Atlanta’s southeastern suburbs. Those 40 miles of DTLs are estimated to cost $2 billion. The funding would come from federal and state fuel-tax funds. But that decision has already raised questions in Georgia. At the same time that nearly all planned widening of expressways in metro Atlanta will consist of express toll lanes for light vehicles, why is Georgia DOT planning to “give” the trucking industry this $2 billion worth of new lanes?

A different conclusion was reached in the four-state I-70 Corridors of the Future study last decade. That aging Interstate needs full reconstruction, and the preferred option is to rebuild it with two DTLs each way. But since the cost of doing that would be far beyond the capital budgets of the four states (MO, IL, IN, and OH), the preferred alternative called for toll financing of the entire project. Missouri has federal permission to do this (by having won one of the slots in a three-state pilot program), but currently lacks state tolling authority.

In the April T&I Committee hearing, the American Trucking Associations’ chief of national advocacy, Dave Osiecki, agreed with Shuster, in a statement worth quoting: “We do have a capacity problem. We don’t have enough funding for our system. I think we all know that. We need to figure out, as a country, as an industry, and as a Congress, a better way to fund our highway infrastructure, going forward.” I fully agree, and recommend customer-friendly toll financing as the best available option.

(This article first ran in the May 2016 edition of Surface Transportation Innovations)

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