Senate leaders tap brakes on 'platooning' trucks

Posted May 17

I-540 morning traffic congestion (generic)

— State Senate leaders delayed a vote Wednesday on a bill to allow commercial trucks to "platoon" using computer-assisted braking technology, saying the measure may be too permissive.

House Bill 716 passed the House with little debate and nearly unanimous support amid the avalanche of bills before April's crossover deadline, but the Senate Transportation Committee decided to move more slowly on the measure.

A "platoon" of trucks, in the language of the bill, refers to "a group of individual commercial motor vehicles traveling in a unified manner through the use of an electronically interconnected braking system." The bill would make an exception for following trucks in the state law that requires drivers to leave a "reasonable and prudent" distance between themselves and the vehicle ahead of them on a highway.

House sponsor Rep. John Torbett, R-Gaston, said such systems have been in use in other states and countries for several years. He said it's similar to "drafting" in racing, when one vehicle follows close behind another to reduce air resistance and improve fuel economy.

Torbett said the wireless electronic braking system reacts more quickly than a human driver can to changes in speed. He compared it to cruise control, which a driver can turn off by tapping the brakes.

"It is not a driverless truck," Torbett assured the committee. "That is not here yet."

The trucks operate at a following distance of 38 to 80 feet apart, depending on highway conditions, said Rick Zecchini, a lobbyist for platooning technology maker Peloton.

State Traffic Engineer Kevin Lacey said the Department of Transportation has worked with the industry to test the technology and said the agency is in favor of the concept.

"We would really like to have the opportunity to test it and roll it out in a secure manner," Lacey told the committee. "The concerns we would have would be the number of vehicles that are platooning and what roadways they're platooning on."

Torbett said the technology would be used to couple two trucks, but Sen. Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick, noted the bill does not restrict the number of trucks that could be connected.

"I remember that old song 'Convoy,'" Rabon said. "If you're on I-40 and you're driving your hybrid, with no limit on how many are in a convoy, even if they have the braking system ... weaving in and out would be dangerous."

Committee chairman Sen. Jim Davis, R-Macon, took issue with Torbett's argument that platooning "saves a lot of fuel for the second vehicle," saying the figures he had seen were about 5 percent.

Davis said it could be difficult for drivers to get around a platoon to merge or to use an exit. "I can see this in low-density areas, but in high-density areas, I could see how this could be a real issue."

Sen. John Alexander, R-Wake, noted that the bill doesn't restrict the practice to highways.

"It would really be tough on a two-lane road to pass 200 feet of vehicle," Alexander said.

Davis said he would hold the measure over till the committee's next meeting.


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