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FMCSA sees potential for human-autonomous team driver regulations

Mixed operations involving automated systems could require hours-of-service changes, according to agency official

HOS regs may soon be changed to address truck driver automation. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

Federal regulators are anticipating the day when hours-of-service rules may have to be changed to accommodate automated driving systems.

Those changes could emerge in situations where half the team in a long-haul driving operation is not human, according to Jeff Loftus, who heads the technology division in the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s Office of Analysis, Research and Technology.

“We’re trying to anticipate new business models, where there could be instances with emerging business strategies where you have truck drivers and automated trucking systems perhaps performing as a team, where they switch back and forth,” Loftus said on Wednesday during a panel discussion hosted by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), which supports automated freight systems.

“We’re trying to understand the technology aspects of that and anticipating the potential of getting requests for exemptions in our regulations in the future, such that the vehicle may perform some of the driving task, the human will perform others, and what changes do we have to make to our hours-of-service regulations, as an example.”

Loftus said FMCSA is working with the trucking industry and safety groups as it considers potential changes. He pointed to a $7.5 million grant awarded to Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) to help develop automated trucking fleets that will inform industry guidelines for autonomous vehicle technology.

Trish Fritz, deputy director of government affairs at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said during the discussion that automated driving systems (ADS) in large trucks present “a tremendous opportunity,” but can potentially be dangerous if drivers don’t understand how to use them.

“We also know that none of the technologies on the market can replace an active, alert driver, because there are no self-driving [vehicles] available for the public to purchase today.”

Fritz cited NHTSA’s recent standing general order requiring crash and incident reporting of vehicles equipped with ADS (Level 3-5 automation) or Level 2 advanced driver assistance system (ADAS), and emphasized that the order applies to prototype systems that are being tested on public roads.

“This action will improve safety and transparency by providing the agency with critical and timely safety data that will also be made available to the public,” she said. “Public opinion is really important, so we will be providing that data as summary information available on our website.”

Despite the work being done by regulators to support the safe integration of ADS, the highest level of automation — Level 5, which requires no interaction by the driver and the driving operations of the truck — is “a bit out there,” Loftus said.

“Level 5 is more of a myth, in the sense that, I think we’re going to have Level 4 activities in very specific routes for a significant amount of time as they build up capacity and scalability. But with mixed fleets, we really need to make sure human truck drivers and car drivers are going to be comfortable driving around self-driving trucks so that there aren’t a lot of surprises.”

Click for more FreightWaves articles by John Gallagher.


  1. thomas couchon

    I run OTR solo. I have 5 years running team and will never do that again. Sorry but the chance of running team with a HAL 9000 is slim and none.

  2. Fido Lost

    This is rapidly accelerating back to the proverbial square one.

    1. ‘Safety Drivers’ will be required to take a even weaker pay check than truck drivers. Since they are now just ‘safety’ drivers.
    2. As the ‘Safety Driver’, you will also be required to accept 100% legal liability for when–not if–the AI kills someone.

    After the inevitable exodus en masse of the safety drivers due to the two indisputable–and heavily lobbied–directives above, what do you think will happen then? Civil Engineers will want to create a highway exclusive to AI trucks. No humans allowed. But did you know we already had such a system? It’s called the railway.

    1. Llano de Front Range Operator

      Technically our Class 1 railways are still fully staffed to 1980’s Standards. As a 14 year Freight Conductor I should know, it takes a minimum of two people to safely operate a freight train. A Conductor and a Locomotive Engineer. Although technologies have been widely deployed in the last 5 years, they are not a 100% replacement for staff even 25% of the time. And 45% of our networks still don’t have any automated coverage at all.

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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.