The final release of Senate legislation to enhance and speed up driverless vehicles, sponsored by Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.), Gary Peters (D-Mich.) and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) is being stalled by the debate on whether to include trucks.
There is widespread concern that trucking may be transformed by automated vehicles. One fear is that the emerging technology could threaten millions of trucking jobs around the country. An example is Uber, which has experimented with long-haul driverless trucking.
“Trucks are different than automobiles. One of those differences deals with the employment,” Sen. Peters said at a Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing on Wednesday. “It’s the top job in over 20 states. We need to think very carefully about the impact.”
Bill sponsors said they hoped to gather more input about whether to include commercial motor vehicles in their driverless car bill or whether to address trucks in separate legislation.
A House-passed bill establishing a federal framework to govern self-driving vehicles only included cars, because the committee that wrote the legislation did not have jurisdiction over trucks.
Safety groups argue that excluding trucks from the Senate bill would make roads less safe, pointing to the potential life-saving benefits that driverless technology could bring to the industry. They believe driverless cars and trucks should be governed by the same set of federal standards.
Manufacturers and some trucking industry groups warned that the U.S. could fall behind other countries if lawmakers don’t address all vehicles in the Senate measure. They also assured drivers will still have a role to play in driverless trucking, such as navigating cityscapes and facilitating pick-ups and deliveries.
“We are at a critical moment in the development of autonomous technology,” said Chris Spear, president and CEO of the American Trucking Associations. “There are many questions to be answered… What is clear is that those questions should be answered for commercial and passenger vehicles at the same time.”
But labor unions raised concerns about rushing to use the technology in the trucking industry without adequately addressing cybersecurity issues or the potential impact on jobs and wages.
“The issues facing autonomous commercial trucks are fundamentally different, and potentially more calamitous than those facing passenger cars, and warrant their own careful consideration,” said Ken Hall, general secretary-treasurer of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
“It is terrifying for me to think that we’ve got a tractor-trailer that’s rolling down the road that can be hacked. That’s one of the things that I think there has to be more information, more studies to ensure that we’re not going to have an issue.”
Sen. Peters said that lawmakers need to be able to answer key questions before they decide whether to include trucks in their legislative effort and that a lot of those questions still remain unanswered. He did not offer a timeline for when a final bill might be released.
“We still have to have more discussions at this point. I think a number of issues were raised that weren’t fully answered,” he said. “I don’t think the employment issue was fully answered.”
Also testifying, American Trucking Associations President and CEO Chris Spear about the importance of including commercial vehicles in the discussion of automated vehicle technology and urged the federal government not to stifle innovation.
“I hope my testimony will help unwind some of the myths about automation and our industry,” Spear said in his opening remarks, “and will demonstrate why trucking needs to be at the table as the roadmap for automated vehicles is being written.”
Spear told the Committee that today, the nation depends on more than 3.5 million professional drivers to move more than 70% of goods that are delivered by truck annually – a fact that increased automation is not likely to change.
“While some people use the terms ‘autonomous’ and ‘driverless’ interchangeably, ATA believes the world of automated vehicles will still have an important role for drivers,” he said. “Just as pilots play a key role in our airline industry, truck drivers will do the same on the ground by leveraging the benefits of automated technology while navigating the cityscapes and handling the customer pickups and deliveries.”
Because of trucking’s key role in the supply chain, Spear told the panel that as the framework for how automated vehicles will be overseen, commercial vehicles must be included along with passenger vehicles.
“We are at a critical moment in the development of autonomous technology,” he said. “There are many questions to be answered – including those about cybersecurity, about the impact on trucking operations and how vehicles will interact with one another, and about infrastructure. What is clear is that those questions should be answered for commercial and passenger vehicles at the same time.”
Among several recommendations, Spear also urged the government to set uniform national rules of the road for automated vehicles, but at the same time not to suppress innovation.
“Federal agencies and state governments must commit to supporting innovation for both commercial and passenger vehicles, using existing regulatory exemptions to allow manufacturers and technology companies to test and develop new systems,” he said.