- Industry panel says autonomous trucks will be phased in gradually, eventually transforming a huge swath of economic activity.
- Autonomous trucking deployment limited by patchwork of state regulations.
- Embark legal counsel: “Any accident would set the entire industry back. The peer pressure is not just present — it’s existential.”
Federal regulations give autonomous trucking companies wide latitude to operate on public roads, but as a new administration prepares to take office, industry players are hoping for closure and clarity on rulemaking that would accelerate commercialization and deployment.
That was one of the takeaways from a panel on autonomous trucking held during Tuesday’s virtual Autonomous Vehicles Symposium hosted by American University.
According to 2018 U.S. DOT guidance, “no new regulations are required for automated motor vehicles to hit the road,” said Monika Darwish, policy counsel for Embark, a self-driving trucking technology company. “That remains true today.”
Nevertheless, she said, Embark is “anxiously awaiting” the FMCSA rulemaking regarding the integration of autonomous driving systems (ADS) into commercial vehicles.
Industry could also use leadership to reinforce that interstate trucking is regulated at the federal level, according to Darwish. That’s “because of its intricate relationship with interstate commerce,” she said, “and to discourage and remove the need for states to interfere with regulation while trying to regulate a broader group of AVs.”
Environmental and logistical efficiencies
Aimed at a general audience, the panel discussion mostly trod familiar ground, with participants highlighting their companies’ overarching focus on safety, and the wide range of social, economic and environmental benefits autonomous trucking companies will bring to society.
Dan Goff, director of policy at Kodiak Robotics, said his team sees about a 10% increase in fuel efficiency when its trucks are operating autonomously instead of in manual mode.
Like the majority of self-driving trucking startups, Kodiak is running daily deliveries for commercial customers, with safety drivers behind the wheel.
“That’s a huge amount of diesel fuel across America’s trucking fleet,” Goff emphasized. Add to that the improved logistical efficiencies from being able to operate 24 hours a day, and “the benefits [of autonomous trucks] are so big and so dispersed, that you sort of don’t believe it.”
He likened the impacts of autonomous trucks to LED light conversions, noting that many people didn’t believe or understand the impacts because the predicted 80% savings on lighting bills seemed too outlandish to be true.
“We’re talking about a similar but much larger effect with autonomous trucks,” he said.
AV safety: A nuanced concept
Safety has become top priority for autonomous vehicle companies as they must convince consumers and regulators alike that self-driving big rigs are not only not a threat but in fact will be safer than human-powered semi-trucks.
“One of the things that differentiates trucks is that trucking is already a pretty highly regulated industry,” said Goff, who chairs a task force at the American Trucking Associations that works on the rulemaking to bring self-driving trucks into existing safety regulations.
“Since state and federal officials have responsibility for making sure the trucks operate safely, this makes our lives a little bit easier.”
Kodiak has seen a lot of support from law enforcement because they see “such an opportunity to improve safety,” Goff added.
Safety is a nuanced concept, acknowledged Cetin Mericli, CEO of Locomation, a company that is deploying platooning technology as a transition to fully self-driving big rigs.
“It’s like the blind man and the elephant,” he said. “Everyone talks about ‘safety,’ and everyone means something else.”
From an engineering perspective, explained Mericli, companies must ensure software and hardware components are built to a level of reliability such that in case of a failure, the truck will still operate safely and come to a stop.
Another aspect of safety involves the system’s reactions to external factors, in which case “you have to have quantifiable evidence the technology is capable of whatever the world throws out,” he said.
“That is more challenging, and is why we all are on the road but with safety drivers.”
An existential threat for AV companies
The business stakes are so high that even with safety drivers, AV companies are on high alert, Darwish said.
“Any accident would set the entire industry back,” she said. “The peer pressure is not just present — it’s existential.”
A fatal 2018 crash involving a self-driving Uber vehicle with a safety driver did set the industry back, drawing widespread condemnation and reorienting company rhetoric away from getting self-driving vehicles on the road as quickly as possible to acknowledging the importance of a slow, safety-first approach.
Still, the U.S. DOT under President Donald Trump has been criticized for a lax approach to autonomous vehicle safety. The Biden administration is expected to take a more aggressive approach, perhaps by tightening federal guidance giving autonomous car and truck companies a wide berth in how they choose to deploy their vehicles.
While industry may not welcome this kind of increased oversight, lack of federal regulation has created a disconnected patchwork of state rules that does hamper progress, panelists said. “It’s getting to the point where we can use more federal leadership to unify the existing efforts,” Mericli said.
Self-driving trucking and jobs
The panel discussed the widespread public perception that autonomy will eliminate truck driver jobs.
Embark collaborates with labor groups including the Teamsters, according to Darwish. “But the biggest point of going into those conversations,” she said, “is to get into the nitty gritty of the numbers and show the technology is not as obstructionist as some headlines make it out to be.”
Self-driving trucking technology is more like the internet than the iPhone, she explained. “It’s not going to be on every street corner one random Friday. It will be obscure at first, with a few applications and gradually expanding to change how we think about transportation and supply chains.”
Robert Brown, director of external affairs for TuSimple, elaborated on some of the positive downstream transformations. Describing his employer’s pro bono deliveries to food banks, he said around $161 billion of food is wasted in the United States annually, and that tight capacity means food banks have to pay premium transportation rates to get food to those who need it.
“We’re hopeful that reliable capacity is going to be a key of autonomy,” Brown said, “opening the firehose” not just to food banks but to the Walmarts of the world that must throw away food because of spoilage.
From hunger to food waste to the emissions generated by that waste, food “is the most interesting vertical for me when it comes to autonomy,” he added.
“Everyone starts with e-commerce. But food is the lifeblood of our country.”