Commercial trucking is a vital part of our nation’s economy, the vehicles and their drivers provide the framework of goods distribution to all 50 states and beyond. Yet, it’s not an industry without issues—driver shortages and rising fuel costs alone have commercial carriers scrambling; leaving some industry leaders to look toward the futuristic solution of self-driving technology and the practice of platooning.
So what is platooning? Imagine as many as seven self-driving large trucks (with a human driver leading the convoy) literally traveling bumper to bumper at highway speeds for long distances in order to reduce both manpower and money spent. Sound farfetched? Well, Auburn University and the U.S. Army have already demonstrated its feasibility during the summer months on a stretch of I-69 in Michigan. And platooning offers an even more direct benefit of fuel-cost savings of 4.5 to 10 percent (depending on size of convoy), says Jonny Morris of platoon technology manufacturer Peloton.
While such benefits to the bottom line might be appealing, one must wonder about a potential downside. Could this new technology undermine the industry it’s meant to save by cannibalizing the current pool of drivers? It’s still under debate as to the role human drivers will play in this new scenario, but it will be a crucial part. So what if a shift to platooning that occurs faster than the decline of available drivers—driving experienced men and women away while discouraging others from pursuing the career in the first place (a topic I discussed at length in a previous blog post)? In time, the industry could again find it’s without the needed number of drivers and dependent on a technology that might not have matured enough to handle the full load of commercial transport.
And what about the automobile drivers who share the roads with these computerized caravans? Who is responsible in case of an accident? The question is complicated by the combination of individual actions, equipment performance and technological glitches that are compounded by the sheer size and number of vehicles involved. Many in transportation regulation think safety issues could be addressed with the development of dedicated truck lanes (DTLs) that would maintain a barrier between transporters and typical traffic. This alone could be quite an undertaking, though; estimates to adapt our infrastructure in this way could take from six to 10 years and the cost could go well beyond what’s currently in the budget for state and federal road maintenance.
While the proposal is clear, many questions have yet to be addressed. For instance, what if the lead truck engages in detrimental or dangerous actions (such as running off the road)? Do all trucks follow? How real is the possibility of having half a dozen jack-knifed vehicles instantly incapacitating a major highway)? While many would like to believe that the reality of this concept is far enough into the future that such issues will be ironed out, the potential exists that an employment-crisis-facing industry might push the technology into practice too soon—leaving safety concerns to be addressed only after a significant number of those who share the road with these platooning convoys have met with injury or death.
Michael Leizerman is a truck accident attorney specializing in catastrophic multi-axle collisions. He understands all facets of truck accident litigation; including federal regulations, drug and alcohol testing and hours of service requirements. He has authored a treatise entitled Litigating Truck Accident Cases and often educates other attorneys on trucking laws and regulations. You can learn more about Leizerman & Associates by visiting their website, www.truckaccidents.com.
Michael Jay Leizerman is the managing partner at EJ Leizerman & Associates, LLC, Toledo, OH. He is a frequent lecturer who teaches other attorneys how to handle truck accident cases across the country.