Platoon on Parade on Virginia Highway

Lines of large commercial trucks operating in autopilot, communicating among themselves and separated by a second’s worth of space, could one day carry freight across the nation’s highways, depending on the advancement of platooning technology and regulations.

The Department of Transportation tested platooning technology on I-66 in Centreville, Va. Sept. 14-15. While it is possible in the future that just the lead truck would have a driver, the DOT test platoon had professional human drivers for lateral movements; acceleration and spacing was determined by technology.

Volvo tests self-driving trucks in Sweden

(Above: Vovlo engineers test self-driving trucks in Sweden. Volvo trucks were used in the Virginia test.)

Truck platooning relies on Cooperative Adaptive Cruise Control (CACC) technology, which combines vehicle-to-vehicle communications with the adaptive cruise control capability.

“These new technologies have the ability to increase capacity on our highways and make freight transportation more efficient,” acting Federal Highway Administrator Brandye Hendrickson said in a press release. “With innovations like these, we can get more out of the highway system we already have, relieve traffic congestion and reduce costs to the freight industry.”  

Change Is Coming

The DOT tests came just days after Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao announced new National Highway Traffic Safety Administration guidelines for Automated Driving Systems and after the Senate held a hearing on the role of autonomous technology in commercial vehicles. 

A House bill creating a framework to regulation autonomous vehicles did not include commercial vehicles, but a Senate bill may do so.

“Trucks share our roads, deliver our goods, and keep our economy moving. Including trucks in the conversation about automated vehicles is important as we seek to improve safety,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, said at a Senate hearing Sept. 13. “It also puts our economy on a level playing field as other countries around the world deploy automated freight trucks.”

Thune (R-S.D.)

But self-driving technology is far from replacing traditional drivers, especially in the commercial sector, several witnesses at the Senate hearing testified. 

What is most likely is the technology will allow drivers to use CACC mode to accommodate breaks or to fight fatigue in long-haul drives, American Trucking Associations CEO Chris Spear said. Drivers will still be needed in tight city streets. 

“We don’t believe Level 5—no steering wheel, no pedals—is imminent,” Spear said when asked about the impact of the technology on driver employment. “What we’re really looking at is driver-assist technology. Not driver-less.”