The commercial trucking industry has not fared especially well this year in its efforts to gain congressional and regulatory approvals toward adoption of driverless and assisted driving technologies. As we observed earlier in the year, the economic incentives for the industry have spurred significant technological developments that can make highly automated trucking a reality in the very near term, at least at the lower levels of automation. As it has developed in Washington this year, however, federal support for driverless technology has forced trucking into the back seat.
Two bills making their way through Congress –the Self Drive Act in the House, and the AV START Act in the Senate — both exclude vehicles of more than 10,000 pounds from their provisions. In other words, the focus in Congress these days is on supporting and regulating highly assisted driving technologies for consumer vehicle markets.
The irony, of course, is that there seems to be only modest popular demand for driverless technology in passenger automobiles beyond relatively low-level safety and convenience features, such as parking assistance and hazard detection. Meanwhile, the trucking industry is keenly interested in adopting driverless technologies in the face of a shrinking workforce and constant competitive pressures for cost reduction. So why is trucking left out of the major bills in Congress?
The Teamsters Union, which still represents some 600,000 professional truck drivers in the United States, was no doubt instrumental in limiting the coverage of the current congressional bills to passenger vehicles. Even though the trucking industry has faced chronic driver shortages for years, the Teamsters reasonably anticipate that the unionized jobs will be the first to go if and when the industry can introduce driverless commercial trucks into widespread use. Consequently, the union regards the exclusion of heavy trucks from the new legislation as a significant victory.
While the Self Drive and AV START bills differ in their details, both represent an important expression of federal support for driverless technology in general, and each bill is designed to ensure that state and local barriers to implementation can be overcome through federal preemption. At the same time, both bills seem to defer to a great extent to the private sector both for developing the essential technologies and for defining the performance standards that the manufacturers and IT developers will need to meet.
Reliance on the private sector for what amounts to self-regulation in developing and testing driverless technology does not necessarily reflect a drastic departure from the Obama administration’s approach, as expressed in its 2016 Federal Automated Vehicles Policy. That document essentially states a set of guidelines rather than firm rules to cover the essentials of safe assisted driving technologies. The Department of Transportation released an updated policy in September that continues and streamlines the concerns outlined in the 2016 Policy, but with even greater emphasis on voluntary compliance on the part of vehicle manufacturers and information technology developers.
Reducing the Role of Individual States in Regulating Self-Driving Tech
Incidentally, the new policy eliminates three areas identified in the original policy for review and discussion by companies active in automated vehicle design and production: privacy, ethical considerations, and registration/certification issues. The new policy, together with the bills pending in Congress, also expresses a preference to restrict state regulation of driverless technologies, with the states’ main roles limited to driver licensing, traffic law enforcement, and insurance regulation. Not every state sees its role as quite that narrow, and some congressional delegations might find themselves under pressure to reserve more discretion to the states as the federal bills progress through Congress.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the primary federal regulator interested in commercial trucking safety, has been busy this year with many of the details implicit in driverless truck technology. The draft minutes of a June working group shows that the agency is concerned that the technology is running far ahead of the regulatory response, but does not indicate that any formal rule making can be expected in the immediate future. The agency seems committed to retaining substantial authority over private-sector manufacturers and operators, but still needs more efficient procedures for getting essential test performance essential data from those most active in developing the new technologies. At least someone’s thinking about what to do if the last truck in an HAV platoon gets caught at a changing traffic light, which actually came up in the June working group meeting.
As it stands toward the close of 2017, the prospect of widespread truck platooning by the end of the decade has dimmed significantly. Meanwhile, there’s no guarantee that the automobile-focused bills now winding through Congress will get anywhere soon, with an election year looming and an executive branch with bigger problems to worry about. It seems very unlikely that the regulatory actions necessary to make driverless trucking a reality — even at relatively low levels of automation — can be completed within the next two years.