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Authorizing Automated Vehicle Platooning: A Proactive Approach for the States

I recently attended the annual Automated Vehicle Symposium in San Francisco. More than 1,000 attendees from around the world from industry, academia, government, and NGOs came together to meet and discuss the challenges and opportunities presented by automated vehicle technology.

In addition to the personal mobility benefits of robocars—think Google’s Self-Driving Car project—they promise to greatly improve safety, as driver error is the critical factor in 94 percent of crashes. This means technology that reduces human involvement—and thus human error—in the operation of a vehicle has the potential to save tens of thousands of lives in the United States per year. And one topic discussed repeatedly was the promise of automated truck platooning.

Automated platooning—also called connected vehicle automation, cooperative vehicle automation, or more colloquially “road trains”—harnesses communications and computer direction systems to close the gap between vehicles while still allowing them to move safely at highway speeds. Such technology has the potential to increase road capacity without expanding physical infrastructure, improve safety, and reduce fuel consumption and resulting emissions due to improved aerodynamics (and sometime in the future, reduce labor costs as core driving tasks can be completely shifted away from humans). See the video below for a helpful and heartwarming visualization (and this wonkier video here):

Unfortunately, current laws and regulations may restrict or even prohibit automated platooning. In the United States, this most obvious impediment is found in state motor vehicle codes. Most jurisdictions have a statute on the books governing vehicle following. These “following too closely” statutes are aimed at prohibiting dangerous tailgating behavior. But as they were written decades ago, none contemplated automated platooning technology, which means these following too closely rules could potentially be enforced against safe but closely following platooning vehicles.

Fortunately, there is a relatively easy fix: simply amend these statutes to explicitly exempt computer-coordinated vehicle platooning. To address this problem, CEI conducted the first nationwide inventory of state following too closely rules. This research allowed us to categorize these rules into four common rule types that apply across three vehicle classes.

From there, we developed two model amendments for each jurisdiction. One amendment would exempt automated platoons from following too closely rules in statute and precludes state regulatory action. The other amendment mandates regulatory action to authorize automated platoons, but “in the least restrictive means for ensuring the safe and adequate operation of vehicles” in order to provide some protections against overregulation.

The results of this endeavor are available in my new CEI report, “Authorizing Automated Vehicle Platooning: A Guide for State Legislators.” 

It is important to note that this does not answer every potential question related to automated vehicle platooning, let alone vehicle automation more broadly. But we believe automated vehicle platooning, particularly with respect to heavy trucks, offers an important near-term step toward highway vehicle automation. Utah and Florida have already established platooning pilot programs in statute and others are considering similar moves. We don’t believe these efforts go far enough and still urge Utah and Florida to adopt our more liberal approach to platooning.

However, we are already seeing politicians posturing against progress. Earlier this month, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (D) vetoed similar pilot program legislation, against the wishes of state lawmakers, technology developers, and safety experts. Gov. Nixon clearly does not understand the technology, using the very different Tesla Autopilot technology and recent fatal crash to cast baseless aspersions on vehicle platooning technology. In a country where 35,200 people died on the roads last year, a politician that stands in the way of any technology promising to reduce that horrific figure should be denounced in the most forceful manner. The good news is Gov. Nixon is unlikely to find much support for his position and we hope he soon follows the lead of more thoughtful politicians, in line with technology and safety experts.