FMCSA will no longer assume a commercial driver "is always a human" as it prods autonomous trucking

FMCSA Administrator Ray Martinez ( Photo: Jay Kan )

FMCSA Administrator Ray Martinez (Photo: Jay Kan)

But lead agency for commercial vehicle safety says autonomous trucking will serve drivers well and make industry better.

The head of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration says autonomous trucks may prompt more flexibility in hours of service regulations as it seeks driver buy-in for new technology.

Speaking at the Next Generation of Truck Freight Transport Summit in Philadelphia, Ray Martinez also downplayed concerns that autonomous trucking was a job killer. Rather, he says new technology can make the job easier for new entrants.

“We want to encourage innovation,” Martinez said. “It’s one of (Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao’s) top priorities. Technology is the next frontier that an usher in greater safety for commercial drivers and others that share the road.”

DOT is looking to provide more guidance and encouragement for autonomous vehicles after Uber’s exit from its self-driving truck project Otto and the fatal crash involving a Tesla self-driving car.

The DOT’s AV 3.0 document, released earlier this month, lays out the Department’s stance on managing safety risks, aims to reduce policy uncertainty and outlines the process for working with DOT on autonomous trucking technology.

AV 3.0 comes as the FMCSA has “been asked to move at an aggressive pace” to allow greater use of autonomous technology in the nation’s trucking fleet.

He says more companies are seeking guidance from the FMCSA on conducting on-the-road tests of automated vehicles and automated driving systems.

“We know they are being developed and testing under existing laws and regulations that may or may not be as flexible as they can be,” Martinez said. “These technologies are not a vision of the distant future. They are here today.”

One result of the AV 3.0 document is that the FMCSA “will no longer assume that a commercial motor vehicle driver is always a human or that a human is necessarily present onboard a commercial vehicle when in operation,” Martinez said.

That future has some worried. A study from University of Pennsylvania sociologist Steve Viscelli estimates 294,000 long-haul trucking jobs could be lost to automation.

Martinez says his agency recognizes concerns that automated driving systems “could have adverse effect on workforce.” But he says “fully autonomous technology was still years from replacing human drivers.”

“You will be able to have a long career here before you will ever be replaced by autonomous vehicles,” Martinez said. “I don’t want to dissuade people from getting into this business because they are critical to our economy.”

The ability of autonomous trucking to relieve drivers during long highway drives could also prompt the FMCSA to modify hours-of-service regulations, Martinez says.

“Perhaps it would allow us to look at hours of service and when we could credit a driver for being on duty or not,” Martinez said.

Martinez says autonomous trucking falls in-line with his agency’s mission to improve safety as the technology “offers the potential to save thousands of lives.” He also offered the business case for automation as a way to reduce congestion, improve productivity and reduce insurance costs from crashes.

As part of the automation drive, FMCSA plans to test truck platooning next year at the U.S. Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground, along with the Federal Highway Administration. It is also working on how automation might relieve burdens of port drivers