Truck platooning became legal in Arkansas in 2017 when the state Legislature passed a bill allowing it.
A new law approved by this year’s General Assembly loosens some requirements, though transportation companies in Arkansas have yet to make wide use of the practice.
Truck platooning allows a second 18-wheeler to follow closely behind a lead truck so each can use driver-assisted technology.
The 2017 law required an actively engaged driver to be in each cab of the platooning trucks.
The 2023 law removed that requirement; now only the lead truck must have a driver in the cab.
The law was not controversial, at least in the Legislature, flying through the House 96-0 (four lawmakers didn’t vote).
It was equally popular in the Senate, which voted 32-0 in favor with three not voting. The 2017 law was also a landslide, passing the House 85-1 and the Senate 35-0.
Shannon Newton, the president of the Arkansas Trucking Association, is a strong proponent of autonomous trucking, including platooning. She said even though no company currently uses platooning in the state, it is important that Arkansas continues to promote it.
“Arkansas is a transportation hub,” Newton said. “It is important that our policies support their advancement.
“In order for companies to evaluate emerging technologies, they must be applied within their business model. Legislation such as this enables them to do that here at home.”
Supporters of platooning say the system is more fuel efficient. The 2017 law, which carried over into the new 2023 law, removed the requirement that a following truck had to be at least 200 feet behind a lead truck.
Being able to follow closer not only helps the truck-to-truck communication but also improves drafting. Some studies said the lead truck could reduce 4% of its fuel use and following trucks could reduce consumption by 10%.
That could mean substantial savings for companies with trucks that drive millions of miles annually, and a better environment through lower emissions.
But safety is an issue. Many people may be leery about a driverless 80,000-pound tractor-trailer rig rolling down the interstate.
An American Automobile Association poll in 2019 showed that 71% of Americans were “afraid to ride” in a driverless vehicle. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which opposed the platooning bill, said the technology is unproven.
“It is still somewhat experimental,” said Tim Nichols, president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 868 in Little Rock, which has 3,000 members.
Nichols said there are also concerns about the technology causing drivers to lose their jobs.
The trucking industry has struggled for years with a driver shortfall, about 80,000 at last count.
“Naturally, it could be used to eliminate work, currently good, blue-collar, middle-class jobs,” Nichols said. “The only ones who benefit from that are the large companies that will be able to afford to use this technology.
“The small carriers [with] five-20 trucks, they’re never going to be able to afford this technology. It could very well put them out of business.”
Newton said safety and job-loss concerns are overblown. Major companies such as Walmart Inc. of Bentonville and J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. of Lowell are using autonomous trucking pilots in other states, but neither is using platooning.
“I think the scope of the application being utilized here speaks for itself,” Newton said. “A vehicle utilizing platooning technology is required to be equipped with all of the greatest safety technologies, including automated braking systems, lane departure warnings, sensors and software, which operate at all times to help avoid crashes.
“The utilization of these types of technology improves the safety of equipped trucks at all times, whether they are in solo or platoon operations.”