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Driverless trucks debated ahead of proposed regulations

FMCSA is considering adjusting rules to accommodate Level 4/5 automation. Credit: Daimler

Federal regulators should no longer interpret their rules to assume that commercial trucks have someone operating them from the driver’s seat, according to the American Trucking Associations (ATA).

That recommendation to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) was submitted in response to the agency’s Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) to evaluate whether to issue a more formal rulemaking on Level 4 and Level 5 automated driving systems (ADS) – those that don’t require a human to operate them.

The ATA said it agrees with the agency’s position, which is consistent with the U.S. Department of Transportation’s “AV 3.0” initiative, that regulations do not require a human operator to be present.

“It is therefore appropriate for FMCSA to interpret its regulations to no longer assume that the [commercial motor vehicle] driver is always a human or that a human is present onboard a commercial vehicle during its operation, provided that the vehicle is equipped with a Level 4 or Level 5 ADS,” ATA stated in its comments, submitted on August 28. “In addition, we request that FMCSA codify this conclusion by including it in the upcoming proposed rule.”

The agency’s proposal generated roughly 250 comments, many of them from individuals warning that lenient oversight of highly automated trucks will lead to more crashes.

The ATA declined to comment on when Level 4 and 5 automation would become commercially available, deferring instead to individual companies. San Francisco, California-based Embark, which is developing Level 4 software for heavy-duty trucks and has touted the safety benefits to automated trucks, also declined to state specific timelines. “However, we believe, along with a growing consensus of industry experts, that the economic and technological advantages [of Level 4 trucks] are likely to be one of the first widespread applications of vehicle automation technology,” the company stated in its comments.

Truck manufacturer Navistar agreed with FMCSA’s approach to how the hours-of-service (HOS) rules should continue to be used with Level 4 or 5 automation – when a human is at the controls, either in the driver’s seat or remotely, the time should be recorded as on-duty and driving.

“However, caution needs to be used as a person onboard a fully autonomous [truck] who performs only non-driving tasks, (e.g., cargo inspection) should not be considered a driver simply by riding” in the truck, the company stated, “so further review and interpretation or guidance is needed.”

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA) commented that most of the questions on which the agency asked for comment were based on assumptions – “many of which are nothing more than marketing ploys” for tech companies developing automated technology rather than based on safety implications, OOIDA said. “Without more concrete data about how [automated vehicles] will function and their impact on the industry, our feedback on the ANPRM is generally speculative. As the practical impacts of the technology evolve, so too will our recommendations.”

The Truckload Carriers’ Association (TCA) agreed with the agency that it is correct in considering that a future “driver” may not be human. It also agreed that FMCSA is considering updating the definition of “driver” and/or “operator” to reflect new responsibilities of a human in a truck being driven by a computer.

But TCA also discouraged the agency from regulations that don’t take into consideration a human onboard even the most highly automated trucks. “TCA maintains that a human ‘operator’ should be present in all vehicles, regardless of their level of automation.”

After evaluating all comments, which were due on August 28, the FMCSA will determine whether to go forward on a formal rulemaking.


  1. Linda Pena

    Is it legal to drive in a public highway with a semi then get a ticket for violation of a fail to obey control device. I did not notice such a sign.

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John Gallagher

Based in Washington, D.C., John specializes in regulation and legislation affecting all sectors of freight transportation. He has covered rail, trucking and maritime issues since 1993 for a variety of publications based in the U.S. and the U.K. John began business reporting in 1993 at Broadcasting & Cable Magazine. He graduated from Florida State University majoring in English and business.