No Exit

Jean-Paul Sartre meets a truck driver

Between the tough economy and a flood of changing regulations, everyone involved in trucking has been so serious for so long I thought the start of a new year might be a good time for a little diversion. What would you think about your drivers moving people at the same time they're moving freight?

I'm not talking about stuffing the odd passenger in any unfilled space once you've loaded the trailer. No, this idea is far more high-tech. It's called “platooning” and involves letting automobile drivers wirelessly hitch up to a tractor-trailer on the highway and let the truck driver take over.

According to three papers presented at the recent ITS World Congress, a “professional driver” would lead a platoon of up to 10 wirelessly controlled cars on limited access highways at a speed of approximately 55 mph. The car drivers would be free to talk on their cell phones, eat, watch DVDs or do whatever they felt like until the platoon reaches their exit and they retake control of their car to peel off.

The idea comes from a European-funded research project called Sartre, which the researchers say stands for “Safer Road Trains for the Environment. Given how hard they had to work to get that acronym to work, I have to give the bureaucrats involved credit for a good, if somewhat twisted, sense of humor — Jean-Paul Sartre is the well-known French existentialist author who wrote the play called No Exit in English. In the play, four characters are in a room they can't leave for some unexplained reason, eventually realizing they're in hell.

The Sartre group has spent a year studying the concept. They believe it will save fuel since the cars could safely draft each other for better aerodynamic effect (think NASCAR on the high-speed tracks), and traffic would move with less stop and go. Other positives could include more relaxing travel for passenger-vehicle drivers and improved safety from less-skilled auto drivers turning over control to a better trained professional.

And that's where trucking could step up to the benefit of everyone. Truck drivers are held to some pretty high standards. They have to be licensed according to Federal standards covering training and physical fitness, they're routinely drug-tested, and now they're closely monitored for safety performance by a comprehensive Federal program. Beyond the legal requirements, almost all fleets conduct background checks before hiring and provide ongoing training and incentives to keep safety and performance skills up to date. Every day truck drivers operate large, heavy vehicles for hours on end in all sorts of conditions, and yet it's no longer uncommon to meet one with a million accident-free miles.

In this country where almost anyone can get a license to drive a car if they can go around the block without hitting anything, truck drivers are the only true professionals we have out on our roads.

So why not add a “platoon leader” endorsement for commercial drivers? Qualifying drivers could earn more, fleets could find a new revenue stream beyond carrying freight, and the motoring public could travel to Grandma's in comfort and safety without leaving their car.

Is it possible? Certainly. The technology already exists for remote, wireless control of vehicles, and Sartre believes such a system could be in place in as little as 10 years. Is it practical, or more importantly, would people be willing to trust giving up control of their cars? Maybe, especially if it taps the resources and skills of the trucking industry. Whether or not it ever gets beyond the paper stage, it's an interesting idea.

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