TrucksFirst we had cruise control, which allowed drivers to take their foot off the gas pedal and maintain a steady highway speed. This helped with fuel economy, but it could be as annoying as it was helpful, as you know if you’ve ever tried to pass someone when your cruise is set at 67 mph and theirs is at 66 mph.

Then we got adaptive cruise control, which added front sensors to the party. This allows you to set your speed and distance from the car ahead. The ACC keeps you at that distance, even if the car in front of you slows down. In some cases, it will slow your car all the way to a stop and then bring it back up to cruise speed. This improved safety and fuel economy, and has so far not proved to be any more annoying to me than regular cruise control. It can be pretty handy, actually.

The next step is called platooning, and it’s coming to Cadillacs in 2017, according to GM head Mary Barra. She mentioned it at the ITS World Conference in Detroit in the relative dark ages of 2014, and she reiterated that plan in July 2016 at a cybersecurity summit. Super Cruise, as it’s known at GM, adds vehicle-to-vehicle, or V2V, communication to the system. Cars equipped to communicate with each other can lock onto each other’s front and rear bumpers and follow each other down the road, wherever they go, however they’re allowed to go.

Follow the Leader

This is a step toward the future, but just a baby step. It is still kind of a big deal, though. V2V communications can potentially further improve safety, fuel economy, and traffic flow. When cars can communicate their positions and speeds relative to each other, they can buffer slowing or stopping and then starting back up again.

Picture a string of cars approaching a bottleneck on the highway. The lead car senses the slowdown via onboard sensors and real-time GPS. It communicates this to the cars behind, who take that information into account along with their own sensors and GPS. They slow down together, kind of like the coils in a Slinky closing up. Then, when traffic clears, the platooning cars can communicate to speed up together. Rather than drivers waiting for the car ahead to go faster, the platooning cars can accelerate basically at the same time and then reestablish the buffer space between them.

Which is cool if you’re driving to work or whatever, but imagine if driving is your job. And imagine if what you’re driving takes a whole lot more time and energy to stop and start every damn time traffic gets slow.

Platooning in long-haul trucks could be a game changer for safety and fuel economy, more even than a smattering of Cadillacs on the road. A Silicon Valley-based company called Peloton Technology received $16 million in 2014 from the likes of Denso and Volvo to create platooning capabilities for trucks. Trucking companies are looking closely at this, since the gains could be huge. A study found that at 65 mph, the lead truck in a platoon would see a 4.5% fuel savings, while the second truck, following at 40-50 feet, would save 10%.

In the future, V2V and V2I (that’s vehicle-to-infrastructure—talking to traffic lights and stuff) communications are going to be crucial for autonomous vehicles. Really, autonomous vehicles can’t operate without being able to talk to other cars, stop lights, exit signs on the highway, and everything else that will be part of the internet of things (you know, the IoT, because we love TLAs—three-letter acronyms). Sensors are important, processors are important, but as with everything, communication is key.

Platooning Party Poopers

If you like to complain about things far in advance, here’s your talking point: If a string of three or four semis is platooning along in the far right lane and you need to exit, but they’re in your way, and you have to race the platoon to the next exit, can you get out of the speeding ticket? Can you sue for lost time because you had to find your way back via *shudder* surface streets? Or could you, you know, be mindful of your surroundings and adjust accordingly so you don’t miss that exit that your nav system probably warned you of, like, ten miles before?

Platooning is an important first step toward connecting all the cars on the road, which will lead to truly autonomous cars, the kind where you can kick back and play all the Pokémon Go you want as you cruise—or maybe Super Cruise—down the road.

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