Trucking Industry debates the Driverless Road ahead with Congress

The NMA Foundation presents The Car of the Future weekly feature.

Last week, the U.S. House unanimously passed legislation to allow testing of driverless vehicles under 10,000 pounds on public roads. Large trucks were not included in this bill due to intense lobbying pressure from the International Brotherhood of Teamsters union with 1.3 million members.

This week, though, the trucking industry had their turn to discuss driverless trucking regulations before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. Here are some of the testimony highlights:

American Trucking Association (ATA) president and CEO Chris Spear pointed out to the Senate Panel that there are considerable differences between passenger-vehicle and freight-truck technology. But he believes that regulation questions should be answered at the same time for commercial and passenger vehicles.

“It is critical that federal policies developed for this technology include all vehicles that operate on the nation’s roadway.”

The ATA estimates that 70 percent of all U.S. freight in weight is shipped by trucks, moving nearly 10.5 billion tons of product while employing 3.5 million drivers. In 2015, trucking brought in total gross revenues of $726.4 billion.

Truck maker Navistar Chief Executive Troy Clarke agreed with Spear’s assessment and added, “Proving clarity on the legislative and regulatory front will allow us, truck manufacturers, to design and validate systems that meet the future needs of our customers.”

Teamster’s general secretary treasurer Ken Hall agreed with Spears assessment that driverless passenger car and truck technology is different but stated, “It is essential that American workers are not treated as guinea pigs for unproven technologies that could put lives at risk.”

Hall also said in his testimony:

“The consequences for getting this wrong could be deadly for both workers and drivers on the road. The public discussion in Congress on autonomous vehicles has tended to focus on the small personal cars on our daily lives—increasing mobility for the disabled, and alleviating congestion in our cities. These are all important topics. But taking a cookie cutter approach in dealing with those issues and applying it to heavy vehicles is reckless.”

Other concerns beyond massive job losses and road safety were also expressed.

New Hampshire Senator Maggie Hassan voiced her concerns about driverless truck cybersecurity attacks:

“…what is less clear to me, and I think what you’re hearing some questions about, is how can we guard against potential harms of this technology from in-and out-of-state actors who are looking to harm us.

“…I am concerned that we get this cybersecurity right at the front end and not wait for something bad to happen.”

Michigan Senator Gary Peters stated that even though the current Senate version of the driverless car bill is a bipartisan effort, he is not yet sold on including commercial vehicles in the legislation.

“…we have not gotten as clear of an understanding on issues related to self-driving trucks as we have during our countless discussions on self-driving cars. As a result, I am of the mind that highly automated trucks are not ripe for inclusion in this bill.”

He clarified in more detail:

“We cannot allow such premature conclusions to stand in this Committee’s way of talking specifics—getting the answers we need to have a more complete understanding of the safety, workforce, and policy implications of highly automated trucks.”

Senator Peters later told reporters he was unsure when the committee when the Senate driverless car bill would come up for a vote in the committee.

In the meantime, truck makers and tech companies will continue to test driverless trucks regulated only in the states where they are test driving.

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