‘Truck platooning’ soon to be seen on Arkansas interstates

by Jeff Della Rosa (JDellaRosa@nwabj.com) 3,025 views 

Legislation for truck platooning was a priority for the Arkansas Trucking Association, just not at the top of the list. The trucking association had draft legislation, but without the right sponsor, the concern was it could be defeated. And with “too many balls in the air,” they conceded to not proceed with it.

“It was low on the priority list,” ATA president Shannon Newton said.

However, Rep. Charlie Collins (R-Fayetteville) introduced “a broader bill” on autonomous vehicle technology to put Arkansas in the lead of the other states. Collins said the trucking industry had can concerns about the bill as it was introduced.

“It was much more expansive,” Newton said.

She reached out to Collins about the bill, and he agreed to work with the trucking association on amending it. The bill was “significantly shortened,” and the “aggressive levels of autonomy” were removed.

On April 1, state legislators approved the legislation, and it was signed by the governor April 3. The law should go into effect in August, and big rig drivers using platooning technology won’t have to worry about a state statute restricting the following distance between two vehicles after it was changed to allow semitrailers to operate in platoons. Industry leaders and experts expect carriers to use the technology as early as this fall.

The change in the law will offer an exemption to the following distance of 200 feet between two vehicles, so “vehicles equipped with driver-assistive truck platooning systems” can follow “other vehicles closer than allowed.” The platooning technology will synchronize acceleration and braking between the vehicles, but it will leave “each vehicle’s steering control and systems monitoring and intervention in the control of its human operator.”

Collins explained platooning technology is like a “souped-up cruise control” that can be adapted to control multiple vehicles. Platooning technology has been deployed commercially, and is allowed in about 10 states, Newton said. It’s being used on the road, but the restriction on the following distance had prohibited it from use in Arkansas.

FedEx Freight has a planned route for platooning in the state, and J.B. Hunt Transport Services and Wal-Mart Stores also have expressed interest in the technology.

New trucks have most of the hardware that’s used in platooning, including collision avoidance, lane departure and roll stability technology. This technology runs for less than $5,000 per truck, said David O’Neal, director of safety services for Arkansas Trucking Association.

Newton said that no more than 10 trucking companies in the state have the technology in trucks to use platooning. But barring any issues, carriers could start using platooning technology as early as this fall.

John Kent, director of the Supply Chain Management Research Center at the University of Arkansas, would not be surprised to see trucks operating in a platoon this year.

“We will see this very soon in the wide open spaces between Arkansas and the West Coast,” Kent said. Also, expect to see platooning on routes between Canada and Mexico.

However, don’t expect it on any street or every highway, especially in densely populated areas. In the short term, it will most likely take place on interstates, such as I-40, between Fort Smith and Memphis or possibly I-30, between Little Rock and Texarkana. Platooning would be used along roads “where would we use our cruise control.” The primary benefit of platooning is improved fuel consumption, Kent said. Other benefits include reduced emissions and better safety.

Fuel use accounts for 41% of a fleet’s operating expenses, and platooning technology “has the potential to significantly reduce fuel use because of “aerodynamic drafting effects,” according to the American Transportation Research Institute, the research arm of trade organization American Trucking Associations. Two trucks in a platoon traveling at 62 mph and 36 feet apart are about 7% more fuel efficient — a 10% increase in efficiency for trailing trucks and 5% more for lead trucks. After investing in the technology, large fleets expect a return on investment in 18 months, while small fleets might see a return in 10 months.

Before one can operate the platooning technology in the state, the Arkansas Highway Commission must approve “a plan for general platoon operations.” Or 45 days must pass after the plan is submitted to the commission, and the plan has not been rejected. A plan has yet to be submitted to the commission.

While his broader legislation on autonomous vehicle technology didn’t make it to a vote this legislative session, Collins sees the legislation allowing platooning technology as a first step toward what he sees as moving Arkansas forward.

“It will be implemented in a safe way,” he said. “I think it’s a great balance.”

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