Read an article in the AJC: Semi-only lanes could reduce traffic, improve safety
Why is this awesome?
There are a series of reasons to think this is a good idea, with a mix of winners (both businesses and citizens).
- Safety improvements
- Perceived safety improvements
- More efficient freight movement: trailer combinations & platooning
- Solid first step in transition to autonomous vehicles
Let’s start with the simplest rational. The AJC article points out that a big benefit of the project is general ‘congestion relief’ as well as safety improvements (both real and perceived).
Let’s start with real improvements. In 2013, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) there were 3,964 people killed and an estimated 95,000 people injured in crashes involving large trucks. That compares to nearly 33,000 people killed in all traffic accidents. Now, we might expect that some of those non-truck accidents were influenced by congestion brought about by large trucks, but that is merely a likely conjecture as I haven’t seen any statistics on that specifically.
Now to perceived improvements. If you are driving behind a big rig in your compact car, well, you have the right to feel a bit intimidated if the truck in front of you swerves a bit out of their lane. Yet it is also important to note that large trucks have become increasingly safer through technology improvements. Indeed if you look at the Large-Truck Involvement in Fatal and Injury Crashes and Involvement Rates, 2004–2013 (I’ve included below) you will see a decline in both fatalities and accidents. We would expect to see a decline during 2008-10 during the height of the recession when less freight was being moved, which we do. However the uptick during the recovery (and it was a strong recovery for freight) remains well below the previous levels. The reason is the large improvements in safety technology (automatic breaking, automatic lane following, better GPS, etc.).
Dedicated trucking lanes are good for efficiency. Once we remove the fear of trucks driving beside us, we can make two quick adjustments. First is the adoption of 33′ trailer combinations. A truck pulling larger trailers means we can move more freight in one load. The next step is platooning. Because of the automatic braking functions, trucks could travel in platoons, reducing drag and increasing fuel efficiency (or better yet, one truck leading a caravan of trailers). This is a win for both business and consumers.
It’s a rather small step from platooning to the implementation of autonomous trucks. The technology is moving forward quickly. One of the biggest hindrances to implementation of autonomous trucks is the ‘fear’ factor which drivers will have when they look over and see a large truck without a driver. Dedicated truck lanes helps reduce that fear. And truck companies are pushing for these vehicles. There is a large, and increasing, driver shortage (currently over 200,000 drivers) which autonomous trucks will help alleviate.
Autonomous vehicles are one of those key disruptors which should make people who care about labor a bit nervous. The Labor Force Participation Rate continues to drop as more people opt out of searching for work. We are still struggling to find ways to deal with labor disruptions caused by globalization and the automation of manufacturing. Is this just another ‘improvement’ which exacerbates this trend?
Let me suggest a reason why building dedicated truck lanes on the highways now is a good idea. The biggest productivity gains are found in the ‘last mile’ (ie from a hub to point of delivery to the customer–retail/consumer). These last miles are where the most labor is consumed, hence where the largest disruption will occur (especially in terms of employment). So the key is to shift towards truck only lanes into cities, but keep the endpoint delivery complicated enough that it doesn’t completely wipe out employment in that sector. And while the truck lanes are being built, begin to plan for the transitions in last mile transportation, because there is already a drone buzzing past my house.
Year | Involvement Rate per 100,000 million miles traveled
Year | Involvement Rate per 100 million miles traveled