Self-driving technology for trucks has emerged as a pivotal issue in Congress

Freightliner Inspiration Truck driver using tablet.jpg

In the United States alone there are over 3 million truck drivers. They helped create industry revenue of over $676.2 billion in 2016, moving 10.4 tons of freight, equivalent of 70% of all domestic freight tonnage, and contributing over $41 million in federal and state taxes. The American Trucking Associations projects freight transportation to grow 3.4% annually through to 2023, showcasing its substantial contribution to the US economy.

Self-driving technology puts truck driver jobs at risk, however, the potential benefits are rewarding. In 2015, more than 35,000 people died in motor vehicle crashes in the United States.  With more than 90% of those deaths are attributable to human error, automated vehicles have the potential to reduce these tragic numbers dramatically.

Furthermore, a 2017 Energy Information Administration study projected that automated trucks could yield fuel savings between 6.7% and 18.6%, improve the economic competitiveness, lower consumer prices, and support job growth.

The U.S. government has the responsibility to mitigate both the risks and benefits associated with the deployment of self-driving technology in the trucking industry.

State legislative powers have allowed for extensive testing of self-driving technology on the roads and highways of the U.S. The states involved are Pennsylvania, Texas, Maryland, Michigan, California (which will host two sites), Iowa, Wisconsin, Florida, and North Carolina, In the state of California, Otto Trucks can be seen testing driving assistance technology on their trucks. A milestone was reached in 2016 when “a truck using advanced technologies drove 120 highway miles along a specific highway route in Colorado with a trailer full of Budweiser,” marking the world's first commercial shipment by a self-driving truck.

The Safely Ensuring Lives Future Deployment and Research In Vehicle Evolution Act, or “Self-Drive” Act, quickly cleared the House with unanimous support on Sept. 6, with next stop being the Senate. The Self-Drive Act only applies to vehicles under 10,000 pounds and not large commercial trucks. The Teamsters’ 1.4 million member-strong Union hopes to protect the jobs of truck drivers and has been lobbying at the federal and state levels to slow legislation on self-driving technology.

"It is vital that Congress ensure that any new technology is used to make transportation safer and more effective, not used to put workers at risk on the job or destroy livelihoods," Teamsters President James P. Hoffa said in a statement at the time.

Many see trucking as the first to adopt the self-driving technology because of the simplicity of the highway network as opposed by the obstacles faced by the intricate urban setting. Omitting heavy-duty vehicles from the legislative agenda could be a grave mistake given the implications to the trucking industry. Jobs, safety, and the economy face new dynamics that will require elements of mitigation.

Meanwhile, the Senate was moving forward and opening the floor to the trucking industry experts. The Hearing entitled Transportation Innovation: Automated Trucks and Our Nation's Highways on Sept. 13 examined the benefits of automated truck safety technology as well as the potential impacts on jobs and the economy.  Including or excluding trucks has been a topic of discussion in ongoing bipartisan efforts to draft self-driving vehicle legislation.

“The hearing provided an opportunity to hear expert testimony on the future highway safety benefits of applying automated technology to trucks as well as perspectives on excluding trucks from legislation affecting small passenger vehicles,” said U.S. Sen. John Thune.

Sen. Gary Peters reinforced the need for total inclusion in the Self-Drive Act.

“Major changes to these industries brought on by high levels of automation will have major impacts on jobs, transportation and the economy – not to mention roadway safety,” he said. “And we need to make sure that when we do establish a regulatory framework for self-driving trucks – we get it right after having considered all of the implications.”

Testimony from leading industry experts added a degree of credibility to the conversation, Troy Clarke the chairman, president and CEO at Navistar, had this to say:

“Navistar sees autonomous technology as an extension of the safety technology already in place and we believe that these greater levels of self-driving technology will help reduce human error, which accounts for approximately 94% of all motor vehicle accidents.”

And he went on.

“Passenger cars equipped with vehicle to vehicle may not be able to communicate with large commercial vehicles which will create enormous blind spots in the transportation network and potentially create inadvertent hazards”

Here is a crucial point, imagine a network of driverless vehicles on the road network, it will be paramount regardless of the size, that the vehicles have the ability to communicate effectively. Legislation will have to comprehensively meet these requirements to ensure the safety of passengers, and therefore whether it is a single bill or multiple bills it will require consideration.

Trucking is critical to the U.S. economy, and it is important for the industry to participate in the development of driverless technology. Providing clarity on the regulatory front such as safety requirements will allow truck manufacturers to develop systems that meet the future needs of the customers and minimising potential disruptions to day-to-day business.

Driverless technology has the potential for improving safety, the environment, reducing congestion, and saving fuel, however any legislation must tackle the job security of humans before being put to pass.