AASHTO Journal

Lawmakers, Officials Explore Automation Issues for Big Rigs, Buses on Road System

Industry and labor officials told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee that fast-developing automated vehicle technologies in heavy trucks and buses can make highways much safer and freight shipping more efficient, but could create major safety gaps if not closely coordinated with communications systems emerging for passenger cars.

The hearing comes at a time that manufacturers and tech firms are moving ahead with both prototypes and real-world test runs, and predictions that commercial truck operations could begin deploying highly automated and even driverless units before many such cars hit the road.

Some senators and witnesses also said the different issues that could lead to self-driving commercial trucks have not received nearly the attention as those for cars, leading to differing views on whether the same legislation that sets federal requirements for autonomous passenger vehicle development should apply to heavy cargo rigs and large buses.

dollarpump.jpgKen Hall, general secretary-treasurer for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, also warned lawmakers at the Sept. 13 event about the risks of displacing or having to retrain millions of commercial drivers.

"I have yet to hear a serious discussion about how we will make sure an 80,000 pound automated truck will be able to maneuver around a warehouse or drop yard and not injure the countless workers also occupying that same space," Hall said in prepared remarks. "Or how we would make sure that the rules governing a driver's training requirements would be updated the moment one of these new vehicles is put on the road.

"And we haven't gotten to the largest issue of them all – the potential impact on the livelihoods and wages of millions of your constituents. These issues should be considered carefully and deliberately at the outset of this discussion, not after the fact."

The CEO of truck builder Navistar, Troy Clarke, said in an industry where many trucks are idle for lack of truck drivers, automation that makes it easier and safer to operate big rigs can attract more people to fill truck cabs.

But Clarke worried that the related vehicle-to-vehicle communications needed to make roadway traffic interactions work well might not develop the same way among cars and trucks.

"As federal regulations are being drafted and implemented, we want to ensure that passenger and commercial vehicles are following similar safety and design standards for optimal compatibility. Otherwise, passenger cars equipped with V to V may not be able to communicate with large commercial vehicles which will create enormous blind spots in the transportation network," he said.

Chris Spear, CEO of the American Trucking Associations that represents cargo fleet owners, said that trucking "should not be left out of any legislation that supports innovation in automated vehicle technology."

He also urged federal authorities to make sure states do not "interfere with the flow of interstate commerce" with state or local laws that "create disparities" in the treatment of automated truck technologies.

"The federal government must take a clear leadership role and, where necessary, exercise federal preemption to ensure that there is no conflict between federal and state regulations," Spear testified.

National Safety Council CEO Deborah Hersman also urged lawmakers to cover commercial and passenger vehicles in the same automated technologies legislation.

"Fatalities on our roadways are trending in the wrong direction and technology can help reverse the death toll. However, to achieve maximum benefit and save the most lives, we must do so holistically by applying technological advances to all vehicles," Hersman told lawmakers.

Questions regarding this article may be directed to editor@aashtojournal.org.

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