By Bill Hudson

ST. PAUL, Minn. (WCCO) — Hauling freight and goods coast-to-coast takes a lot of diesel fuel. But thanks to advances in autonomous technology, the trucking industry hopes to change that.

“We think that vehicle automation technology is going to change the role of the truck driver, but the driver is not going to be gone. It’s going to be more like an airline pilot, right?” said John Hausladen, president of the Minnesota Trucking Association.

Five trucking industry representatives testified before the state’s senate transportation committee to explain the concept of “platooning.”

That is a newly developed system where driver assist software allows two big rigs to travel in tandem. Separated not by hundreds of feet, but much closer distances of 50 to 80 feet apart.

Essentially, the two big tractor trailers are drafting, cutting wind resistance and greatly increasing fuel consumption between 5 and 10 percent.

Although they are traveling at highway speeds, it is essentially the same scientific principle as used by NASCAR drivers.

But while the industry is motivated by lower cost and greater efficiency, state lawmakers will decide if platooning is safe for all motorists.

“Our task of course is looking out for the public interest and safety. We need to make sure it is good for the traveling public,” said State Senator Scott Dibble.

Unlike fully autonomous or driverless vehicles, now undergoing testing in California, this device pairs big rig drivers on the road. It uses both radar and radio frequencies to notify truckers that another rig nearby is equipped with the device.

When connected, it gives speed and braking control to the lead driver — the rear driver only steers and allows the software to accelerate and brake the driver’s truck.

Proponents say it will make over-the-road trucking safer and less costly.

“It’s going to help with safety because you have sensors and new technologies reading what’s going on. Trucks in some situations are applying brakes and keeping the trucks in the lane,” Hausladen said.

Unlike driverless big rigs, driver assist platooning is already in commercial operation. Saving truckers in Texas both fuel economy and adding profit to their routes.

A Senate task force will meet on Thursday to craft legislation to both regulate and guide the new technology.

Bill Hudson