Senate committee considers bill for self-driving commercial vehicles

By Tyson Fisher, Land Line staff writer | 9/15/2017

Just two days after the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released a new version of automated vehicle guidelines and one week after the House passed self-driving legislation bill, both for passenger vehicles only, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation held a hearing to address autonomous technology for commercial vehicles.

On Wednesday, Sept. 13, the committee heard from various stakeholders to address the issue of automated trucks. Recent actions by NHTSA and Congress have only been relevant to passenger vehicles. The federal government has been tackling self-driving trucks separately as many more variables are in play with commercial vehicles that are not acknowledged in passenger vehicle proposed guidelines and legislation.

The committee hearing heard from representatives of Colorado State Patrol, Navistar, Teamsters, National Safety Council and the American Trucking Associations. Lawmakers and stakeholders discussed whether or not commercial vehicles should be included in current legislation. Issues included driver displacement, safety and cybersecurity.

“For the remainder of this month, we will work diligently to resolve and finalize the outstanding issues in this draft legislation – including the topic of today’s hearing – whether highly-automated trucks and buses should be part of this particular legislation or addressed in a separate bill,” said Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich.

Driver displacement
Potential job losses for drivers was a reoccurring theme throughout the hearing. Several lawmakers and stakeholders shared concern over the millions of truck driving jobs at the stake. In his opening remarks, Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said that although a cohesive, all-encompassing automated vehicle policy is needed, Congress must consider the potential impact on more than 3 million commercial driver jobs.

However, not everyone was persuaded job loss is an issue. Chris Spear, president and CEO of American Trucking Associations, was not convinced automated trucks will threaten the livelihood of truckers.

“Some may predict the elimination of all driving jobs, including both drivers of passenger vehicles and commercial vehicles, but that future, if it exists at all, is too far into the future to see,” Spear said.

Navistar CEO Troy Clarke shared Spear’s belief. Clarke pointed out that manufacturers do not hire or train drivers. Rather, their customers do.

“Advanced driving and autonomous technologies will come to our industry,” Clarke said. “Large scale displacement of drivers is not likely to happen, especially in the short and medium term.”

However, when asked if Congress should include some sort of policy that will protect working Americans who may lose their job as a result of automated trucks, everyone agreed except for ATA:

“We’re already facing a shortage,” Spear said later. “It’s the reason I answered ‘no’ to that, because we simply don’t believe that this is a displacement issue.”

Spear suggested that Level 5 automated trucks, or driverless trucks, will not be a reality in the foreseeable future. Regarding automation at a lower levels, Spear compared the job of a trucker in the future to that of airline pilots of today, i.e. autopilot on the long stretches and manual takeover at beginning and end of trip.

Additionally, Spear suggested this change in job roles may actually attract more drivers to the industry. Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., also posited that new technology would create more than jobs than it would eliminate. However, neither Spear nor Gardner brought up the difference in skill sets between a driver and someone working in tech.

It was suggested that additional endorsements on a commercial driver’s license could be required to operate highly automated trucks.

Perhaps the most cited statistic during the hearing was 94 percent of investigated crashes can be attributed to driver error. Nearly everyone present agreed that automated technology could dramatically lower the rate of fatal crashes.

Despite consensus regarding safety benefits of autonomous technology, lawmakers and stakeholders could not agree on whether or not including commercial vehicles in current legislation is the best approach.

“I question assertions that excluding self-driving trucks from this particular bill will result in less safe roads and that they don’t merit special considerations going forward,” Sen. Peters said. “We cannot allow such premature conclusions to stand in this Committee’s way of talking specifics – and getting the answers we need to have a more complete understanding of the safety, workforce, and policy implications of highly automated trucks.”

Peters also said he believes that “highly automated trucks are not ripe for inclusion in this bill.”

Ken Hall, general secretary treasurer of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, was concerned about the lack of proven technology before putting automated trucks on the road.

“It is essential that American workers are not treated as guinea pigs for unproven technologies that could put their lives at risk,” Hall said.

Col. Scott Hernandez of the Colorado State Patrol raised questions about safety regulations and inspections. Among them:

  • Which regulations apply to autonomous vehicles and which will have to be modified to adapt to the new technology? 
  • Are there regulations that autonomous vehicles should be exempted from entirely? For example, how will federal hours-of-service requirements apply? If there is a person in the cab while the vehicle is operating autonomously, does that person need to maintain their record of duty status? If so, how should that time be recorded? On duty, driving? On duty, not driving? Off duty?
  • If an autonomous vehicle is placed out of service for critical safety violations, how will the motor carrier be notified?
  • How will an inspector stop an autonomous vehicle for inspection? Will these vehicles be able to recognize and yield to emergency vehicle signals?

“These are just a few of the many questions that will need to be answered before autonomous vehicles can be allowed to enter the driving population,” Hernandez said.

Another safety issue was driver training and overreliance on technology.

“Drivers must use new technologies appropriately, and the threat of overreliance on new technologies is legitimate and must be addressed in training sessions,” said Deborah Hersman, president and CEO of National Safety Council. “For example, a truck equipped with electronic stability control does not give a driver freedom to go faster around curves. Likewise, a truck that features collision avoidance technologies does not clear the way for a driver to be drowsy or distracted behind the wheel.”

Furthermore, most agreed that a driver should be present inside a commercial vehicle at all times. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., cited airline captain Chesley Sullenberger as a prime of example of the importance of human operators. In January 2009, Sullenberger safely landed a commercial airplane in the Hudson River after striking a flock of geese and disabling the plane.

Moving forward
With new information available to them, the Senate may consider including commercial vehicles in the self-driving bill passed by the House. Lawmakers and witnesses during the hearing were split on whether or not trucks should be included.

When asked if trucks should be included in recent legislation, all agreed except the Teamsters’ representative.

“We have to recognize that there is a vast difference between a 4,000-pound car and an 80,000-pound vehicle,” Hall said.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., expressed his dismay over NHTSA’s autonomous guidelines released earlier in the week, calling for more definitive and enforceable legislation.

“I was deeply disappointed by the guidance issued yesterday by NHTSA, which struck me as anemic and a giveaway to the industry and it could result in lives lost unless we have enforceable rules and regulations that protect the traveling public,” Sen. Blumenthal said.

The hearing was the first action taken by the Senate for H.R.3388, the SELF DRIVE Act. Passed by the House on Sept. 6, the bill currently sits in the Senate awaiting further amendments or a companion bill.

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