The future of vehicle automation in Minnesota doesn’t just revolve around personal cars, like self-driving Ubers, or features built into the latest Tesla. New technology is also changing the state’s long-haul trucking industry.
Much of that technology, like automatic braking, is already being incorporated by private businesses. But industry leaders and a state task force have approached Minnesota lawmakers in an effort to legalize the latest wave of automation to reach local roads: a practice known as platooning, in which trucks follow each other closely on highways and synchronize their driving with the help of technology.
Platooning is aimed at helping trucking companies save gas and improve traffic flow while preventing crashes. Some in the trucking business argue it also reduces strain on drivers and could help recruit workers for an industry with thousands of open jobs in the state. Allowing the practice is one of the major recommendations from the state task force, known as the Governor’s Advisory Council on Connected and Automated Vehicles, former Gov. Mark Dayton convened to research ways Minnesota could best step into the vehicle automation industry.
Stephen Boyd, co-founder of the platooning company Peloton, told a Senate committee last week the trucking strategy is focused “very much on empowering drivers and finding new solutions that improve safety and efficiency.”
For Peloton, platooning involves connecting a pair of trucks with a wireless communication system. When the operation is engaged, both drivers are steering, but speed and braking of the driver in the rear is controlled by the system. The trucks maintain only a 50 to 80-foot gap on the road, although that increases if a car cuts between them. Boyd described the process as “cooperative adaptive cruise control.”
The drafting can increase fuel efficiency by reducing drag, much the same way it conserves energy for cyclists in a pack during a race (which in the sport is called, as you may guess, a peloton). Fuel efficiency can be a big benefit for trucking companies, since, as Peloton calculates, the businesses usually spend roughly 34 percent of their operating costs on gas and run on a profit margin of 3 percent or less.
Boyd said trucks with Peloton are either brand new or very new and use state-of-the-art safety technology that helps prevents trucks from crashing or drifting into other lanes by mistake.
When the lead truck brakes, the following one does so nearly instantaneously. The two drivers are also in constant communication by radio and video that shows the back truck what its counterpart is seeing. Peloton also only uses platooning on multi-lane highways in areas they deem safe, Boyd noted. The crash-prevention strategy isn’t based solely on altruism, either — collisions can be extremely costly for trucking companies, Boyd said.
Peloton isn’t the only company to use platooning. Some have tried it out in Europe and Daimler, the parent company of Mercedes-Benz, has tested the technology in the U.S. for several years.
But, notably, Daimler is no longer singing the praises of truck platooning. In early January, the company said it was reassessing its view on platooning after its hopes of saving gas weren’t realized. “At least for U.S. long-distance applications, analysis currently shows no business case for customers driving platoons with new, highly aerodynamic trucks,” says a news release on the company’s website.
Automation to help recruit, not replace, workers
One of the big fears of automation is that workers will be replaced by robots — a concern that has already been recognized in some industries. But supporters of platooning insist this particular innovation won’t put any drivers at risk since it still requires them in each vehicle. “Highly automated solutions that don’t involve drivers are far out,” Boyd told lawmakers in St. Paul.
John Hausladen, president of the Minnesota Trucking Association, said platooning may actually help the trucking industry recruit new drivers. The technology can “reduce the physical and emotional drain” on each driver, Hausladen told MinnPost, and fewer crashes could make the job more appealing.
The industry needs workers. Data from the Department of Employment and Economic Development shows more than 2,000 open jobs across the state in the heavy trucking industry and a 6.4 percent job vacancy rate, compared to a 5.2 percent average vacancy rate across the state. That’s despite a roughly $20 median hourly wage for truck drivers, which is far higher than the state median of $14.54. Wages for drivers have barely increased in recent years, however, increasing on average less than $2.50 an hour since 2013.
In the future, automation might lead to fewer drivers on the road, Hausladen said. But he argued that automation will create more jobs in the industry overall by growing the economy and increasing the need for trucking and spinoff jobs.
Tom Gierok, a truck driving instructor at Minnesota State College Southeast in Winona, said anything that takes pressure off drivers and makes the job safer is a bonus that is likely to help recruiting, though Gierok said the top deterrent for truck drivers remains the prospect of spending long spells away from home.
“The money is good, the benefits are good,” Gierok said. “I just think that people don’t like the thought of having to be away from their family.”
Will the Legislature go for it?
The advisory council — made up of business and government leaders, plus representatives from nonprofits and unions — has recommended Minnesota allow platooning and has drafted legislation to make it legal.
The provisional bill would allow up to three trucks in a platoon and would exempt the practice from the current 500-foot highway following distance under state law. A company running platoons would need a permit from the state and follow certain rules, such as reporting of crashes.
Top legislators on the Senate’s Transportation Finance and Policy Committee have been skeptical about allowing fully autonomous vehicles on public roads, but platooning has been less controversial.
Sen. Scott Newman, a Republican from Hutchinson who chairs the committee, said he had concerns about what happens when technology malfunctions, but it’s otherwise a policy that “should really be looked at.” He noted Peloton is already operating in Texas. “No reason why it wouldn’t work in Minnesota,” he said.
Minneapolis Sen. Scott Dibble, the top DFLer on Newman’s committee, told MinnPost he was comforted that each truck had a driver and the system did not operate within city streets and away from major highways. But he said he wants to learn more about Texas’ experience with platoons and offer the public a chance for greater input, since they would be “guinea pigs” in any experiment with the practice.
“We need just a lot more public awareness and opportunity for the public to participate in the deliberation in considering whether or not this is a good idea,” Dibble said.