A wide-ranging Capitol Hill hearing on trucking safety managed to drill into a policy sticking point for the industry – maintaining a seat at the table on discussions around automated vehicle (AV) regulations.
Titled “Under Pressure: The State of Trucking in America,” the June 12 hearing before the Highway and Transit subcommittee of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee featured a panel of eight witnesses and ran for more than three hours, with much of the discussion focused on safety.
But U.S. Representative Sharice Davids (D-Kansas), who worked on autonomous vehicle policy while at the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), is concerned that too much of the AV policymaking so far in Washington, D.C., has gravitated toward passenger vehicles and not enough around freight. “What does intentional autonomous vehicle policy look like, so that we’re taken of,” she asked the panel.
American Trucking Associations (ATA) President and CEO Chris Spear testified that as a former federal advisor at DOT, “I felt for the longest time that trucking was not included in this discussion – and I think we need to be,” he said. “We’re moving 71 percent of the freight, we’re half of the tab of the highway trust fund. Not to slight my friends in the auto industry, but we’re not going to hand the whole [policy] plate for them and DOT to write. We have to be at the table to accommodate what the future is going to look like.”
At the same time, Spear said he gets “really bullish” against the notion reported in the media and elsewhere of “driver-less” trucks.
“We’re trying to recruit people into this industry, and if they think their job is going to be gone in five years, they’re probably going to move on to something else,” he said. “I think you’re going to see cars evolve quicker, and they should. Two-thirds of the accidents that involve trucks are caused by passenger vehicles.”
That’s where technology such as automated emergency braking and increasing vehicle connectivity through expansion of the wireless spectrum will allow trucks to safely navigate into the “driver-assist” level of automation, Spear said. “It’s a different way to get at [preventing crashes] than [mandating] underguards. I’d like to take an approach where the accident doesn’t happen at all. Connectivity can solve a lot of the problem and lower the fatality rate.”
Todd Spencer, President of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, acknowledged at the hearing that automated systems in trucks could “tremendously improve” highway safety.
“But we struggle to separate the reality from what are simply marketing claims. We don’t see any difference in real road safety” based on safety data that gets reported to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), he said.
“So we’d like small business truckers to be in a position where they have confidence in a technology that will actually work.”
No agreement on safety
Despite all the witnesses claiming safety as the top priority in trucking, there was disagreement across the panel on the source of safety problems and how to address them. U.S. Representative Bruce Westerman (R-Arkansas) pointed out some of those disagreements, including whether a driver shortage exists, whether electronic logging devices (ELDs) have improved or worsened safety, whether automation is good or bad, and whether there should be more flexibility in hours of service.
Westerman asked if there was a policy change with which everyone testifying could agree, and when Jason Craig of C.H. Robinson [NASDAQ: CHRW] offered up the establishment of a motor carrier selection standard to allow shippers and brokers to re-enforce carrier out-of-service criteria, a fellow panelist took issue with that as well.
“This would be a mistake, essentially providing immunity to the broker/shipper who meets a meaningless set of criteria with respect to hiring a trucking company,” testified Andy Young, a truck driver who is also a lawyer representing truck crash victims.
Responding to Craig, “just 10 percent of all motor carriers make up a near 50 percent of the crashes,” he said. “If you look at [a carrier’s] out of service percentage ratings and they exceed national averages, then you need to look at that carrier a lot closer so that you’re not accidentally hiring one of these 10 percent bad apples that cause these multi-fatality crashes.”
Lease-purchase program abuse
U.S. Representative Grace Napolitano (D-California) brought up the practice of independent drivers at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach being abused by unscrupulous operators. She stated that such actions were a way for companies to pay minimum wages and deny benefits. Further, she said these drivers are being forced to lease trucks at prices they can’t afford, with some being paid $200 per day but with leasing fees of $190 per day.
When asked what ATA was doing to address the problem, Spear said he was unaware of any member abusing independent contractors. “I do not deny, however, that it’s not happening,” he said. “For any bad actor pressuring drivers in a way that’s not sustainable and where they can’t afford their equipment, that’s a situation that needs to be remedied.”
After visiting container terminals at the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex to assess the situation, however, “I still do not have a conclusive idea of how widespread the problem is,” Spear said.
Young asserted that the problem exists outside California as well. “Every time a truck driver gets roped into one of these lease-purchase programs where they’re promised keys to a truck, the next thing you know, all the money they earn goes into the equity of the truck, and they’re saddled with not being able to take money home to pay their mortgage. I’d love to get ATA on the record as being against lease-purchase programs for the entire industry.”
Truck size and weight
Rodney Noble, senior director of transportation for soft drink company PepsiCo [NASDAQ: PEP] testified that his company, along with a group of lawmakers, supports Congress authorizing the FMCSA to conduct a pilot program on the effect of increasing the gross vehicle weight of trucks to 91,000 pounds, a change opposed by safety advocates.
Noble said PepsiCo is already safely operating 91,000-pound, six-axle trucks in Canada that come with extra braking power. “We checked back five years and found zero fatalities in our operation of these vehicles in Canada, even though they cover an average of 2.6 million miles annually,” he said.
“Most states have heavier weight limits, so we’re asking that 91,000-pound trucks get off local and state roads and put them on the interstate, and that way you’re not running a lot of out-of- route miles.”
U.S. Representative Mike Gallagher (R-Wisconsin) said that allowing bigger trucks would reduce greenhouse gas emissions. “I would hope that we could move forward with a pilot program with the idea that it would it result in safer roads and a healthier climate.”