Washington looks at autonomous trucks

By Mike Kastner, NTEA Managing Director

This article was published in the November 2017 edition of NTEA News.

As car and truck OEMs work toward developing self-driving (or autonomous) vehicles, legislators and regulators are trying to keep up. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently updated guidance released last year for autonomous vehicle developers. The U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation to begin addressing safety issues around self-driving cars but did not include trucks. Also, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee recently held a hearing on the future of self-driving commercial trucks.

Vehicle manufacturers and fleets are looking at autonomous vehicles primarily with an eye toward safety. In the commercial world, safety can easily equate to productivity and efficiency.

The House-passed Safely Ensuring Lives Future Deployment and Research in Vehicle Evolution Act, or SELF DRIVE Act, is meant to help facilitate the development and eventual deployment of autonomous cars. Under the proposal, NHTSA would have to develop a new set of safety rules for as many as 100,000 new autonomous test cars. The bipartisan bill would exempt developing autonomous cars from certain federal safety rules while putting in place the new ones from NHTSA.

In current legislation, Congress defines an automated driving system as capable of performing the entire dynamic driving task on a sustained basis. Dynamic driving task means all real-time operational and tactical functions required to operate a vehicle in on-road traffic, excluding strategic functions such as trip scheduling and destination and waypoint selection.

While the House-passed legislation would make possible road testing of autonomous cars while safety standards are in development, it also would further clarify federal and state government roles in regulating autonomous cars. For instance, nothing in the bill would prevent a state from developing regulations concerning driver-related issues, like licensing and training. States would retain the right to regulate dealerships and autonomous vehicle sales.

The bill would require NHTSA to develop a longer-term safety priority and rulemaking plan. Additionally, manufacturers would be required to have specified cybersecurity protections in place for self-driving cars.

What about trucks?
Discussions in Washington separate cars from trucks — or, more precisely, commercial vehicles. The House measure is specific to cars, and the Senate is debating whether or not to include trucks.

A commercial motor vehicle is defined as a self-propelled or towed vehicle used on the highways in commerce principally to transport passengers or cargo, if over 10,000 pounds gross vehicle weight rating; is designed to transport more than 10 passengers, including the driver; or is used in transporting hazardous material. As a practical matter, most legislators think of commercial vehicles as over-the-road trucks or motor coaches.

NTEA continues to explain to legislators and regulators that trucks produced by member companies for vocational use may have attributes similar to a passenger car or 18-wheeler or neither depending on size and configuration of the work truck.

Current opposition to including trucks in legislation encouraging development of autonomous vehicles primarily concerns potential loss of truck driver jobs.

Most truck manufacturers are quick to point out truly autonomous trucks are not going to be in fleets as soon as some may think. In fact, drivers are expected to continue being integral to trucks for the foreseeable future. Eventually, truck drivers may play a role similar to airline pilots. One of the most likely initial steps for over-the-road trucks would be platooning, limited to specific areas and types of equipment. Federal Highway Administration recently sponsored a test on a public highway with a three-truck platoon. The trucks successfully navigated an eight-mile course with approximately 50 feet between them at 55 mph, but a highly skilled driver was still required to operate the platoon.

Fleets will likely first see more collision avoidance capabilities in trucks. Like many safety innovations, these measures often are incorporated into passenger cars, and owners and operators of heavier class vehicles quickly recognize the value of such functionality. Technologies including automatic braking, adaptive cruise control and lane departure warnings are already on the roads to some extent.

According to one of the House bill’s co-sponsors Jan Schakowski of Illinois, “Autonomous vehicles have great potential to improve safety on our roads by reducing accidents caused by human error. My goal in crafting this legislation has been to make sure that this technology is deployed safely and that we also advance existing safety technologies.”

Visit ntea.com/advocacy for the latest legislative and regulatory news.