Trucking industry wants seat at self-driving table

Keith Laing
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — The trucking industry is pushing for a seat at the table as new rules to allow self-driving cars to operate on U.S. roads are being developed.

American Trucking Associations President Chris Spear said during an event at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday that “the lion’s share” of self-driving guidance recently released by the U.S. Department of Transportation focused on automakers.

“Our industry was not included in that process, despite what was said. We were never at the table, we never had any input,” Spear said during a panel discussion on self-driving organized by the Securing America’s Future Energy group, also known as SAFE.

“This is really being developed by one mode, not multiple modes,” Spear continued. “You’ve got to have all modes developing this. We all share the road.”

Just this week, Anheuser-Busch announced that it had completed the world’s first commercial shipment by self-driving truck, sending a beer-filled tractor-trailer on a journey of more than 120 miles through Colorado.

The Transportation Department’s proposed self-driving rules focus on a set of 15 guidelines that call for automakers and technology companies to voluntary report on their testing and safety of autonomous cars to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration before the cars are used by the public.

Before self-driving cars are allowed to roll on U.S. roads, automakers would be required to report how they were tested, how the systems work and what happens if those systems fail.

Spear said Wednesday that regulators should also be thinking about the benefits of self-driving trucks. He cited a fatal crash between a Tesla vehicle that was being operated in “Autopilot” mode that collided with a semi-trailer that turned left in front of the car, saying the accident could have avoided if both vehicles were autonomous.

“The accident we saw involving a Tesla vehicle hitting a trailor, it was one way obviously,” Spear said. “The Tesla had capability and the trailor did not. If the two had been communicating, maybe that driver wouldn’t have lost his life.”

Spear said he doesn’t foresee trucks being operated completely autonomously any time in the near future, despite the potential safety benefits he touted Wednesday.

“I don’t see drivers coming out of the cab for a very long time,” he said. “What we really are talking about here is hitting an autopilot button. Entrance to exit on the long haul, it would really be no different than an airplane pilot. You need a pilot to taxi and take off as well as land the plane, but when you reach a cruising altitude, the pilot hits autopilot.”

Spear added: “I think you’re going to still need the driver to navigate the cityscapes, to do the pickups and the deliveries.”

DOT officials have said they “consulted with industry leaders, experts in the field, state governments, the traveling public and safety advocates, among others” as they crafted the proposed self-driving guidance that Spear says ignores trucking. The agency’s statements since the framework was released have largely focused on the fact that self-driving cars could save lives on U.S. roads, however.

“In 2015, 35,092 people died in traffic crashes; 2.4 million people were injured. Ninety-four percent of crashes are caused in some way by human choice or error,” DOT said in a Sept. 20 blog post. “Ultimately, automation features in vehicles could prevent many of the crashes that are caused by unsafe driving, potentially saving tens of thousands of lives each year.”

Mitch Bainwol, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said regulators should continue to focus on the potential safety benefits of self-driving autos.

“When you look at deaths on the road in the U.S., it’s 3,000 people a month,” he said. “If you look at what happens, less than 1 percent relates to the vehicle itself and 99 percent relates to either behavior. All of those factors, the 99 percent that do not relate to the function of the car itself, can be addressed by this technology.”

Bainwol added: “I think there’s an urgency that we should attach to this for the mortality reason alone. This is a massive problem in society. We have before us an opportunity to make a dramatic improvement in safety outcomes.”

Bainwol’s group represents Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, Ford Motor Co., General Motors Co., BMW Group, Jaguar Land Rover, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz USA, Mitsubishi Motors, Porsche, Toyota, Volkswagen Group of America and Volvo Car USA in Washington.

Henry Claypool, policy director of the University of California-San Francisco’s Community Living Policy Center and an adviser to SAFE’s autonomous vehicle task force​, said regulators face a tough job balancing the needs of multiple industries that are jockeying for position in the self-driving arena.

“It’s an unenviable position to be in to be a regulator these days, dealing with a technology that’s moving so quickly,” Claypool said.

Spear said Wednesday that NHTSA isn’t equipped to consider the possibilities of self-driving trucks because the trucking industry is regulated by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. He added that Congress might have to step in to ensure a place for autonomous trucks.

“These are all policy questions that need to get answered,” Spear said. “I see no better place to have that dialogue than here on the Hill. This is a role I think the Hill is best positioned to do, to be transparent, to be inclusive not just of all the modes, but all the agencies. Corral that, cultivate that kind of consensus, because we’re all going to have to plug into this at some point.”

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing