Business

Iowa among states barring automated truck 'platoons'

Industry report argues 'drafting' technology would save fuel, lessen congestion

Semi-trailer trucks are shown parked last week near Williamsburg. A new report said Iowa is one of 34 states that does not allow automated vehicle platooning — a budding technology that allows a semi trailer truck to follow as close as 40 feet behind a lead truck. Transportation officials suggest that’s mainly because people don’t understand the technology, thinking it’s like driverless cars. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Semi-trailer trucks are shown parked last week near Williamsburg. A new report said Iowa is one of 34 states that does not allow automated vehicle platooning — a budding technology that allows a semi trailer truck to follow as close as 40 feet behind a lead truck. Transportation officials suggest that’s mainly because people don’t understand the technology, thinking it’s like driverless cars. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

Iowa is one of 34 states that does not allow for automated vehicle platooning — a budding technology that transportation officials say provides major benefits to the movement of freight.

A new report released this month by Competitive Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based public policy organization, indicates that following-too-closely laws are the most common legal barriers to vehicle platoons.

In a platoon, two trucks — with onboard automated technology — can link up to share a signal. Once connected, the lead truck sets the speed, while the rear truck follows as close as 40 to 50 feet behind. With the shared signal, the rear truck’s automated braking system can sense the forward vehicle’s brakes to slow down or stop accordingly.

“Once they’ve done that, those vehicles can move into a closer configuration that is moving at the same pace and can apply the brakes within milliseconds,” according to Mark Lowe, director of the Iowa Department of Transportation.

Iowa Code now bans trucks from following within 300 feet of one another, making the practice of platooning illegal.

Lowe said the Iowa Legislature in its last two sessions has discussed amending the law to allow for truck platooning, but the debate has made little headway due, in large part, to a lack of understanding of the issue.

“The misperception about what is really happening with platooning is really holding it back,” Lowe said. “Many see it as fully autonomous, but this is much more limited. It’s just a form of automated technology.”

Arguments For

Advocates cite advantages that would come with platoon technology.

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“Platooned vehicles can travel more closely together at highway speeds, mitigating traffic congestion, improving fuel economy and increasing vehicle throughput without costly roadway capacity expansions,” the Competitive Enterprise Institute report stated.

With platooning, trucks have the ability to safely and legally draft each other, which reduces wind resistance and can increase fuel efficiency by 7 to 11 percent, said Daniel McGehee, director of the University of Iowa’s National Advanced Driving Simulator.

What’s more, the practice can reduce highway congestion and enhance safety, Lowe said.

McGehee said one of the biggest challenges to passing automated vehicle legislation — including the following-too-closely amendment — is that many people don’t fully understand the technology, what it can do and, almost more importantly, what it cannot do.

When in a platoon, drivers maintain full control of their respective vehicle.

“I think the challenge here is what the media in general, what legislators read about, is complete robot cars from the Silicon Valley, and there’s a big gulf between the reality of that in production outside of testing,” McGehee said. “There’s sort of an overselling of that technology and where it is relative to implementation.”

The Iowa DOT and the UI’s NADS center have joined with public safety, freight transportation and economic development officials to better understand and craft the conversation about automated vehicles.

Ashley McDonald, project manager of Automated Vehicle Driving Systems Research at the UI driving simulator, said the Iowa Advisory Council on Automated Transportation could help shape future Iowa laws.

“As we’ve doing this and considering things like platooning, for example, there’s a dedicated group that can look at what’s going on comprehensively and hopefully provide recommendations to the state,” McDonald said. “One thing that we know about these technologies is there is going to be a bit slower of a ramp-up. There still needs to be a lot of things to be considered, a lot of testing, to be done.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8309; mitchell.schmidt@thegazette.com

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