Platoons of Giant Tractor-Trailers May Be Coming Soon to Interstates

If you're scared by giant tractor-trailers while driving, sit down now.

ByABC News
June 3, 2014, 7:02 PM

June 3, 2014 -- Two giant tractor-trailer trucks, both traveling at freeway speed, one right behind the other, just 20 feet separating the two: Recipe for disaster? Or for improved safety and better fuel economy?

It’s the latter, claims Joshua Switkes, CEO of Peloton Technology, a Silicon Valley company whose technology makes possible such “platooning” of tractor-trailers.

Switkes tells ABC News the term describes a communications and data link between big rigs that allows them to synchronize braking and acceleration, so that the two can enter into a kind of symbiosis.

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The proximity of the two trucks reduces wind resistance, resulting in what Switkes says is a 4.5 percent fuel savings for the lead truck and a 10 percent savings for the rear.

A central operations center at Peloton’s HQ takes in data from sensors on the two trucks. It also crunches data on weather, highway conditions and other variables, to determine when it’s safe for trucks to platoon, what their speed should be, and how much distance should be maintained between them. Tested distances have ranged from 20 feet to 75 feet. The trucks’ drivers can elect to exit their linked relationship instantly, at any time. They remain in full control of the truck’s steering.

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Asked to compare Peloton’s system to the one behind Google’s driverless cars, Switkes says: “There’s some overlap. Some of the sensing is similar, some of the computing. But ours is all about augmenting the ability of the driver by making them safer and more efficient.” Google’s car, by contrast, has its driver do “nothing at all.”

Switkes obviously has a vested interest in promoting platooning. But recent tests of Peloton’s system--overseen by law enforcement, highway safety experts and a leading trucking organization—appear to confirm some of his claims.

Peloton two weeks ago demonstrated platooning for the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles, the Nevada Department of Public Safety, and the Nevada Department of Transportation. The event took place on a stretch of Interstate 80 east of Reno—a major conduit for cross-country freight. Two trucks were run 40 feet apart.

Nevada Highway Patrol Chief Dennis Osborne, in a press conference after the demonstration, said the #1 mission of his office was to reduce the number and severity of crashes on Nevada’s highways. He said he initially was “concerned” by Peloton’s concept. But after seeing the demo and reviewing the technical data, he said, “I feel safe about this project.”

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Officials from the other agencies also responded positively.

The normal reaction time for the driver of a vehicle, Osborne said, is 1 to 2 seconds, depending on weather conditions, the driver’s age, and other variables. The reaction time of the Peloton system is greatly faster: “We are talking fractions of a second, here, from the time the lead vehicle begins to brake.” He called this reduced reaction time “an awesome selling-point.” The Highway Patrol, he said, will continue “to watch this with a lot of interest.”