This blog has previously observed that automated truck platooning is likely to emerge as one of the first practical applications of driverless automotive technology. When two or more trucks can follow one another closely by means of digitally connected braking and accelerating systems, fuel savings for both trucks can range from 5 to 10 percent — that savings alone can make a huge difference to any carrier’s bottom line. We also pointed out that while the technology appears to be available right now, the regulatory landscape presents quite a different story. You can’t run trucks 50 feet apart if state law requires a following distance of at least 200 feet.
Throughout 2017, state legislatures from coast to coast have been debating and addressing various aspects of highly automated vehicle (HAV) technology, including new legislative developments of particular interest to the trucking industry. Here, we’ll examine a sampling of the latest HAV legislation from Sacramento to Tallahassee. The interactive research tool hosted by the National Conference of State Legislatures makes automated driving legislation easy to track in every state; all state-specific information below was found on their website.
Several states enacted exceptions to tailgating laws that will allow driver-assisted truck platooning (DATP) on their highways. As of July 2017, commercial truck platooning is permitted (under various restrictions, in some cases) in eight states: Arkansas, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas. Several other states, including California and Florida, allow DATP testing under prescribed circumstances.
In addition to these states, several other legislatures have formed task forces, advisory committees, or similar bodies to study and report on the specific legislative and regulatory steps necessary to integrate HAV technology into existing transportation infrastructure.
One such challenge concerns accurate identification of the “driver” for liability and traffic enforcement purposes. Several states, including Florida and Tennessee, have introduced bills that would define the operator of an autonomous vehicle without a human driver as the autonomous vehicle technology itself. In other words, the developer of the software system that controls the vehicle would be responsible for following traffic laws and compensating accident victims. The Tennessee bill remains pending, while the Florida bill died in committee.
Strict Liability for HAV Manufacturers and Operators in New York?
Meanwhile, in New York, Assembly Bill 7243 would impose strict liability on the “manufacturer, owner, and operator of unmanned motor vehicles” for injuries or deaths resulting from the operation of such vehicles in the state. There would be no need to prove negligence; all you’d need to prove is the fact of the accident, the extent of the damages, and the identity of the owner, manufacturer or operator — all of whom would be well advised to carry a lot of insurance. It does not seem likely that New York will cripple its trucking industry by imposing strict liability on an entire emerging technology, but Assembly Bill 7243 is still alive.
These legislative examples illustrate some of the complexity that remains to be resolved in laying a regulatory foundation for HAV technology. While the federal government remains responsible for establishing and enforcing vehicle safety standards that most directly apply to manufacturers, the 50 states are generally in control of licensing, registration, traffic enforcement, insurance and liability. Some states are addressing these issues in the context of automated driving more quickly than others, and it will eventually appear that some states are doing a better job of it than others. Right now, the leading states in HAV legislation and regulation appear to be far ahead of their federal counterparts in the U.S. Department of Transportation.