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Driver issuesNewsTop StoriesTrucking Regulation

Lawmakers raise driver privacy concerns on Capitol Hill

Hearing on vehicle automation also included debate over use of forced arbitration following crashes

Stakeholders debated at a congressional hearing Tuesday the extent to which the government should be involved in protecting the workforce against potential negative consequences of vehicle automation.

As the trucking industry advances from semi-automation to driverless trucks, one concern drivers have raised is their eroding privacy as autonomous systems make increasing use of in-cab video monitoring.

“Heavy-duty truck driving is already a highly surveilled occupation; can you speak to the impact this has on workers, and ways that Congress can create policies that can balance a worker’s right to privacy with the fact that automated vehicle [AV] technology needs large quantities of image data to work effectively?” Rep. Lori Trahan, D-Mass., asked witnesses at the hearing before the Consumer Protection subcommittee of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

Greg Regan, president of the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO, responded that the aviation industry should serve as a guide “in how they balance worker privacy with the necessary safety constraints that are inherent in some of the monitoring equipment in aircraft. We have struck that balance before so we can certainly do it here.”

Trahan also raised the prospect of mandatory arbitration — a regulation some consider to mostly protect manufacturers involved in liability lawsuits — and the recourse that a driver would have in the event of a death or injury caused by an autonomous car or truck.  

“As a general matter, there is only one party that seeks binding arbitration in a consumer-manufacturer context, and that’s the manufacturer,” testified Jason Levine, executive director for the Center for Auto Safety.

“When we’re talking about a vehicle, whether you’re in the vehicle or hit by the vehicle or have to use it for work, it dramatically changes your opportunity to hold that manufacturer responsible. Most importantly, whatever they determine will be done in secret, so the rest of the public won’t learn what happened and if there’s a real widespread problem. This historically has had little to do with automated vehicles, but there’s no reason to expand this” into this industry, Levine said.

In anticipation of the hearing, the Self-Driving Coalition, whose trucking members include Aurora, Embark, Kodiak and TuSimple, pointed out in a statement that fully autonomous long-haul trucks “have the potential to dramatically improve the safety of U.S. roads and highways.”

The group noted that in 2019 more than 36,000 people died on U.S. roads in crashes — with an estimated 94% of motor vehicle crashes caused by human error. The coalition emphasized that nearly 14% of crashes involved a truck, and that one in three long-haul truck drivers experiences a serious crash in his or her career.

However, fully autonomous trucks, according to the coalition, can not only reduce crashes but “will create new jobs in the trucking industry, and will not impact the net hiring of truck drivers in the near future.”

But Regan, who pointed to studies in his written testimony suggesting that between 700,000 and 1.7 million commercial drivers may be displaced or have their jobs fundamentally changed by automation, said that the economic benefits of automated vehicles cannot be realized unless workforce conditions are also addressed.

“While this committee’s jurisdiction may not extend to crafting policies to mitigate these workforce impacts, I would suggest that you nonetheless have a responsibility to the American people to work with your colleagues across other committees to ensure any AV legislation takes full stock of its potential negative impacts and of policy solutions that may help the labor market better absorb the shock of automation and the workforce prepare for the transition.”

Click for more FreightWaves articles by John Gallagher.

John Gallagher, Washington Correspondent

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.

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