Are those 80,000 pound trucks tailgating each other? Soon it may be perfectly normal — and safe

Are those 80,000 pound trucks tailgating each other? Soon it may be perfectly normal — and safe, by Ashely Halsey.

A wave of new technology intended to make trucks safer — using radar, cameras and reflective light scanning — is sweeping the industry. By next year, much of it may be combined to put pairs of trucks on the road at a distance that before would not have been possible or safe. …

Trucks are involved in 11 percent of fatal crashes, although they make up just 4 percent of vehicles on the road, according to the [US] Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. Ten percent of truck fatalities are rear-end crashes — three times as many as rear-end collisions between two cars.

The pairing of tractor-trailers at a distance of 30 to 50 feet is called platooning. Here’s why it’s significant — and how it might save you money.

Fans of bike racing and NASCAR are acquainted with what it means to get into someone else’s slipstream. Whether in spandex or NASCAR fire-retardant suits, racers know they can save energy or fuel by tucking close behind another rider or race car.

Truckers know that, too.

Trucking companies spent about $90 billion on diesel fuel last year. Firms spend the most paying drivers, but buying diesel often is the second-biggest expense, sometimes amounting to 20 percent of operating costs.

A truck tucked in the slipstream of another tractor-trailer can save 10 percent on fuel. But the truck in front also will burn about 5 percent less fuel. Why? Part of the drag on a truck plowing into the wind is caused by turbulent air that tumbles off the top and sides of the trailer. When two trucks pair up closely, the air flows more smoothly from the first to the second, reducing that turbulence. …

“The chief safety concern for passenger vehicles is how other drivers will react to platoons,” Adkins said. “How fast should platoons be permitted to travel? Will long platoons block exit lanes that were not designed for such circumstances? Can we limit platoons to only the right lane, rather than blocking multiple lanes of traffic? How can we prevent cars from trying to dangerously ‘cut in’ between platooning trucks?” …

The Peloton system links acceleration and braking directly to the engine controls, bypassing the driver when two trucks are paired, although both drivers continue to steer and can take full control if a situation warrants it.

“We can send data very rapidly between the two trucks,” Switkes said. “It’s all electronically integrated. The reaction is about 30 milliseconds, compared to a human taking 1 to 1.5 seconds to react, at a minimum.”