U.S. DOT autonomous vehicle policy summit addresses trucks

March 2, 2018

Tyson Fisher


After taking a backseat to passenger vehicles in the autonomous vehicles discussion, commercial motor vehicles received some attention during a U.S. Department of Transportation listening summit on automated vehicle policy on Thursday. In addition to addressing issues relevant to the trucking industry, Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao announced that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration will be seeking comments regarding autonomous technology in commercial motor vehicles.

DOT senior leadership invited stakeholders and the public to hear a conversation about cross-modal issues important to the integration of autonomous vehicle (AV) technology. State and local officials, industry, academia, and safety advocates were involved in a three-panel discussion that focused on freight, government policies and DOT modal perspectives.

In opening remarks, Secretary Chao listed several concerns, including public perception. According to AAA, the general public’s anxiety over self-driving vehicles has improved but is still high. More than 60 percent of U.S. drivers are afraid of riding in fully autonomous vehicles, down from 78 percent in 2017.

Additionally, there are questions surrounding a mixed infrastructure. More specifically, how will computer-operated vehicles move about safely alongside human-operated systems?

“The public does have concerns about the safety and security and privacy of automated technology,” Chao said.

AV technology in trucking
Two bills in the House and Senate, SELF DRIVE Act and AV START Act, address AV technology at the passenger vehicle level. However, trucks are exempt and have since been brushed aside as consumers demand action on passenger vehicles.

That lack of attention will be addressed soon. Chao announced that FMCSA will be collecting comments on AV technology in trucks soon.

In one panel, American Trucking Associations President Chris Spear represented the trucking industry in a freight logistics discussion. Spear said that one in 16 jobs in the U.S. is in trucking and that half of the Highway Trust Fund is paid for by trucking. This was used to segue into what ATA believes to be a driver shortage.

Although the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association believes any shortage in drivers is a result of turnover rates because of poor compensation, Spear claimed that the average driver earns $56,000 a year, full benefits and a retirement plan, all without a college degree.

So if compensation is not the issue, what is?

According to Spear’s comments during the session, the misinformation surrounding AV technology is discouraging younger drivers from entering the industry and replacing the aging driver demographic. Spear called the idea of fully self-driving trucks displacing 3.5 million driving jobs in the near future “ludicrous.”

“We aren’t talking about it as ‘driverless,” Spear said. “We look at this through the lens of ‘driver assist’ technology.”

With that said, Spear addressed some of the challenges ahead of Level 3 and Level AV trucks, which both require a human driver behind the wheel.

One concern is patchwork regulations. Since truckers participate in interstate commerce, it is important for all 50 states to have consistent AV regulations. If there is too much disparity between regulations, long-haul truckers could find themselves in a difficult situation when operating an autonomous truck.

Spear also mentioned the need to address hours-of-service regulations at the federal level. Although Level 3 and 4 AVs require a human behind the wheel, the vehicle itself will be doing most of the driving. If a trucker is behind the wheel but not technically driving, does that count against the 11 hours? Spear urged the government to strongly consider this question.

Vehicle miles traveled
During the government policy portion of the session, vehicle miles traveled was a consistent theme. Although ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft claim that self-driving cars will significantly reduce VMT, the panel on Thursday suggested the complete opposite may be true.

Tina Quigley, Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada general manager, argued that vehicle miles traveled will likely increase with self-driving cars becoming more prevalent, forcing policymakers to strongly consider increased investment and expansion in infrastructure.

Quigley said that unless mass transit and ride-sharing transit is encouraged, the current model of private ownership will continue to reign supreme. In that case, people will be encouraged to equate driving time with productivity time when allowed to do work behind the wheel.

“Inevitably, we have encouraged more vehicle miles traveled, and that is a concern,” Quigley said.

When driving becomes less burdensome, it is possible that motorists will be more inclined to get inside their vehicles and commute, adding miles traveled to the infrastructure requirements.

Kirk Steudle, Michigan Department of Transportation executive director, brought up the issue of parking policies. If cars can drive themselves, what would prevent a vehicle owner from sending the car on errands to avoid astronomical parking prices in some major cities? Others may have their vehicles drop them off at work, send the car home and have the vehicle pick them up later. All of these parking scenarios would add more miles traveled.

Lastly, if vehicle miles traveled increases in the ways the panel proposed, what will that do in terms of energy policy? More specifically, will Level 5, self-driving vehicles be powered by electricity or combustion engines? If the latter, what will a significant increase in vehicle miles traveled do to greenhouse gas emissions?