Senate's version of automated vehicle legislation also excludes commercial vehicles

By Tyson Fisher, Land Line staff writer | 9/29/2017

Autonomous technology for passenger vehicles just received another significant push forward after Sens. John Thune, R-S.D., and Gary Peters, D-Mich., introduced the American Vision for Safer Transportation through Advancement of Revolutionary Technologies (AV START) Act on Thursday, Sept. 28. Most notably for the trucking industry, commercial vehicles were left out once again.

The AV START Act follows a similar bill passed by the House just three weeks earlier called the Safely Ensuring Lives Future Deployment and Research in Vehicle Evolution Act, or SELF DRIVE Act. The two bills are similar in nature, including provisions reinforcing federal, state and local roles.

If passed, states will be prohibited from enacting or enforcing laws or regulations regarding the design, construction or performance of autonomous vehicles (AVs). However, states will continue to exercise their power in regulating licensing, registration, insurance, law enforcement and traffic management provided that such laws and regulations do not place “unreasonable restrictions” on autonomous vehicles. The Senate’s bill adds protection against licensing discrimination against those disabilities.

Also included in the bill is a provision speeding up the process for the secretary of transportation to eliminate and update references to “human drivers and occupants” in federal motor vehicle safety standards. Current language provides a loophole for autonomous vehicles to not comply with present-day standards and test procedures.

Under the AV START Act, manufacturers will be allowed to test vehicles in certain conditions just like traditional vehicle manufacturers do under current law. Autonomous vehicle manufacturers have had to jump through hoops and cut through red tape to test new technology. This provision will “level the playing field,” as Sen. Peters pointed out in his news release.

For the most part, the Senate’s autonomous vehicle bill mirrors the House bill, with the exception of some minor tweaks here and there. The AV START Act omitted two provisions unrelated to AVs at the end of the SELF DRIVE Act, one regarding a rear seat occupant alert system and the other addressing headlamps. The former was in response to children being left inside cars during extreme weather.

Issue divides trucking industry
On Sept. 15, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation held a hearing regarding commercial vehicles being included in pending autonomous vehicle legislation. After the House passed the SELF DRIVE Act, many were upset about the omission of trucks.

During the hearing, trucking stakeholders answered questions about commercial vehicles being included in the AV bill regulating passenger vehicles. Although everyone on the panel agreed that commercial vehicles and passenger vehicles need to be on the same page, some were concerned about significant differences between the two and warned about the dangers of haphazardly including trucks in current legislation as is just to speed up the process.

The trucking industry is split on the issue. The American Trucking Associations President Chris Spear expressed his dismay over the exclusion of trucks.

“If more automated cars and trucks are to share the roads, they should also share the same framework,” Spear told Reuters in a statement.

Conversely, the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association continues to encourage lawmakers to consider many variables applicable only to commercial vehicles before lumping them in with autonomous passenger vehicle legislation. Among them:

  • A federal study analyzing the impact autonomous vehicles would have on millions of jobs in the trucking industry;
  • At least one seat to an owner-operator or representative of small trucking businesses on any technical and/or safety committee;
  • The establishment of working groups to address workforce and small business factors related to the expanded use of autonomous technology;
  • Requiring a driver be present in the power unit and capable of assuming operational control of the vehicle in case of a system malfunction;
  • Requiring that the Secretary of Transportation issue a report identifying each provision, requirement, or specification of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSRs) that needs to be modified or updated for autonomous trucks within 12 months of enactment;
  • Public reporting of vehicle miles traveled and crash data involving autonomous trucks, regardless of crash responsibility; and
  • Strengthening cybersecurity requirements due to the greater safety risks posed by autonomous trucks.

The Commerce Committee is scheduled to consider the legislation at a legislative markup session on Wednesday, Oct. 4.

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