TECHNOLOGY

Coming Soon on the Interstate: Speeding Columns of Tailgating Trucks. (It Should Be Perfectly Safe… In Theory, Anyway)

The technology sounds fascinating. But how will the rest of use react?

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BY Bill Murphy Jr. - 05 Dec 2017

Coming Soon on the Interstate: Speeding Columns of Tailgating Trucks. (It Should Be Perfectly Safe... In Theory, Anyway)

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Waiting for self-driving cars? This will come first. Starting next year, you'll likely notice something alarming on the highway: long platoons of speeding tractor trailers, tailgating in a 70-mile-an-hour march down the Interstate.

If the technology works as it's touted, it should all be perfectly safe--maybe even safer than the way trucks travel now. The impetus is twofold. First, because it will almost certainly be cheaper, and second because of the safety issue--the idea is that the same technology that makes it all possible could, in theory, actually reduce accidents.

Below, we'll explore how it works and why it should--again, in theory--make highway travel a bit safer. It'll be up to you whether the whole idea still scares the heck out of you though.

Slip-streaming

The technique is called platooning, or slip-streaming, and if you ever watch bicycle racing or NASCAR, you perhaps already know how it works. When two or more vehicles travel in tandem at a high speed, and in close proximity, the leading vehicle pushes air out of the way and creates a vacuum that can actually pull the second vehicle along.

That can result in reduced fuel consumption, and since trucking companies spend about $90 billion a year on fuel--their second-biggest expense after driver salaries, according to The Washington Post--they're eager to shave points and increase profits.

Slip-streaming lets a leading truck reduce fuel consumption by about 5 percent, and reduces the trailing truck's consumption by about 10 percent. Multiply that by tens of thousands of trucks, and it's a gigantic potential savings.

The trick to this however, is that effective slip-streaming requires both significant speeds and very close proximity--which all sounds scary as heck.

However, a "wave of new technology," as the Post puts it, including "radar, cameras and reflective light scanning," now makes it possible to line trucks up closer and faster than ever before, supposedly in safety.

How close? As little as 30 feet away from each other. Since tractor trailers tend to be about 70 or 80 feet long, it might be more efficient--but it will probably look scary as heck for the rest of us driving next to them--and scrambling to get out of their way.

But is it safe?

Despite all the assurances, you'd be crazy not to worry how this will affect safety--I mean, what else are you supposed to think about when a pair of tailgating trucks hurtle by? It's not an idle concern, either. More than 3,100 car passengers died last year after they were in accidents with big trucks. Another 400 or more pedestrians were killed in the same manner, and thousands more were injured--sometimes through absolutely no fault of their own.

But a surprising contingent of industry and government officials say that because of new technology, safety could actually improve.

The key is that platooning, high-speed trucks will also have high-speed wireless links between them, so that the trailing truck's speed, torque, and brakes can be instantly controlled by the front truck. The system relies on GPS, radar, cruise control, and video cameras so that the driver of the second truck, whose physical view is basically the back of the front truck, can see on a screen what the driver of the front truck sees. What makes it possible now, but not a few years ago? Advances in the rate of transfer of wireless of data.

"Whatever the front truck is doing, the rear truck is doing it instantly, automatically, very reliably," says Josh Switkes, co-founder of Peloton, one of the companies that builds the technology.

In fact, some safety officials say the main problems aren't likely to have to do with the trucks themselves, but instead with your reaction to them--and with the fact that the highways on which the trucks will be slip-streaming weren't actually designed for this kind of travel.

"The chief safety concern for passenger vehicles is how other drivers will react to platoons," Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, told the Post. Other issues he cited:

  • "How fast should platoons be permitted to travel?"
  • "Will long platoons block exit lanes that were not designed for such circumstances?"
  • "Can we limit platoons to only the right lane, rather than blocking multiple lanes of traffic?"
  • "How can we prevent cars from trying to dangerously 'cut in' between platooning trucks?"

Regardless, it seems the technology is just a few months away from widespread adaption, and chances are you'll see it where you live. At least nine states specifically allow platooning, and another 29 states have laws that apparently don't explicitly prohibit it.

Even if it is technically safe, it might leave you thinking about taking the train.