OOIDA’s Spencer: America isn’t ready for autonomous trucking

OOIDA President Todd Spencer explains to a panel in Washington, D.C., that autonomous vehicles won’t replace professional truck drivers for a long time.

May 2019

Greg Grisolano


Some advocates of technology may claim a driverless future is just around the corner, but not OOIDA President Todd Spencer. He says the technology, as well as the infrastructure necessary to achieve a level of safety on par with having an experienced professional driver in control of the vehicle, is still a long way away.

Spencer’s remarks came during a panel on the impact of automated vehicle technologies on the workforce in March at the U.S. Department of Transportation in Washington, D.C.

“I don’t think it’s going to happen tomorrow, and I don’t see how it could realistically happen without every aspect of vehicles – not just trucks, but every other vehicle on the road – and the roadway system itself (being automated),” he said.

The panel was part of a collaborative project between DOT, the Department of Labor, Department of Commerce, and Department of Health and Human Services to study workforce effects and operational health and safety issues for commercial drivers in relation to automation technology.

The first phase of the study, which focuses on the long-haul trucking and transit bus sectors, will result in a report to Congress, expected later this summer. The second phase will be expanded to include a broader set of driving occupations. Last October, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao submitted a request for comments on the impact of automated vehicle technologies and the workforce. OOIDA filed comments challenging the assumption that autonomous vehicles would improve highway safety.

“The study must contemplate the potential displacement of jobs, expected changes to the skills, and training necessary for drivers to safely operate autonomous trucks and how these changes would affect driver compensation,” OOIDA wrote in its comments. “OOIDA also recommends that the study specifically examine the impact automated vehicles would have on small trucking businesses, which account for 94 percent of all U.S. motor carriers.”

The OOIDA Foundation has said that there are many safety questions that arise when discussing the possibility of automated vehicles.

“There are numerous situations in which an (autonomous truck) will not be able to safely operate without an experienced driver behind the wheel, which actually leads to further safety issues, including automation bias, fatigue and overall driver performance,” the OOIDA Foundation wrote.

At the panel discussion, Spencer urged for more transparency from manufacturers and developers of the autonomous technologies, not only in terms of their successes but also the failures and limitations of the technologies.

“The vast majority of driving jobs, I don’t see how they could ever be automated,” he said. “And certainly, we’re decades away from those that could be automated actually being able to be done safely, simply because it does require technology, but it’s also going to require massive public investment that people in this town too often don’t seem to want to make.”

The panel discussion, which included opening remarks by Chao, also included Sam Loesche, legislative representative for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters; Amitai Bin-Nun, vice president of autonomous vehicles and mobility innovation at Securing America’s Future Energy; and Art Guzzetti, vice president of policy for the American Public Transportation Association. LL


J.J. Keller
Greg Grisolano

Greg Grisolano joined Land Line in 2013. He was formerly a reporter for the Joplin Globe. He brings business writing and photography skills to Land Line, and has a passion for finding and telling stories about the people who make up the trucking industry.