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Jon Osburn and OOIDA’s Tour Truck, the Spirit of the American Trucker are currently off the road. But as soon as they’re back we’ll let you know where you can find them. Meanwhile, you can still join OOIDA at a discount by calling and mentioning our show at (816) 229-5791. See the full Spirit Schedule. Air date: July 26, 2017.

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Road train comin'

Drivers on the Ohio Turnpike have been witness to an experiment in what some people think is trucking’s future.

Uber’s division for self-driving trucks, Otto, began testing truck platoons in Ohio months ago, and soon Peloton Technologies will test semi-autonomous trucks on the highway.

Platooning uses a lead truck and several following trucks. The lead truck controls the acceleration and braking of all the trucks. In some platoons, each truck has a driver who controls the steering. The idea is that the trucks can run closer together, so each following truck can take advantage of the “drag” of the truck in front of it.

Supporters of the idea said at one time that it could be just one driver, even controlling the steering, which would cut labor costs. Since then, they’ve claimed that platooning will increase fuel economy, although some studies have suggested that to make a significant gain, you’d have to be so close that even with the lead truck controlling braking, it could be too tight for comfort.

However, the tests in Ohio – at least as presented – involve slightly longer following distances and drivers in each truck.

The technology people are convinced that platooning or their more frequently mentioned cousin, automated trucks, will work, that they are nearly ready to take to the roads – although their public statements are frequently laced with comments indicating a complete lack of understanding about what is involved in trucking.

Any time you discuss that idea around an actual truck driver, someone who intimately understands all the conditions a truck will encounter, you get a very different response.

Count OOIDA Life Member Dale Kirschbaum of Hendersonville, N.C., as one of those truckers. His response to platooning is classic.

“I’m going to depend on that guy up there in the front truck to do all my accelerating and braking?” Dale asked. “I don’t think so.”

In fact, Dale went a step further, pointing out a particular flaw in the thinking of those who promote platooning – the fact that the following trucks will still require drivers.

“If you got to have drivers in those back trucks to steer them, what in the world is the use of all this technology of platooning when you’ve got to have a driver in a truck anyway?” Dale said.

Dale has a lot of good questions – and I have many of the same ones, although truckers such as Dale obviously see the issue with more first-hand insight.

The obvious answer regarding the additional truckers is two-fold: First, the developers of this think that platooning trucks will get much better fuel economy; and second, they plan to pay the others drivers far less than they pay drivers now.

I’m dubious about the fuel economy effect. The science backs it up, but it was done before we had all the trailer tails to reduce the very effect platooning is designed to take advantage of.

Add to that the increases in fuel economy achieved by recent truck models, and the frequently unacknowledged but proven truth that the best way to increase fuel economy is to train the driver in techniques that will increase efficiency – something shown to add up to a 35 percent increase, beyond the capability of any single technology. So I’m in the “we’ll see” category.

I think once those trucks are on a busy highway with lots of inconsiderate and somewhat insane four-wheelers darting in and out and back and forth, frankly, all bets are off.

So sure, go ahead, test your platooning. Will it work someday? Maybe, probably even. But without understanding the challenges you’re trying to overcome, it’s pretty hard to overcome them.

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