Washington — Lawmakers in the U.S. Senate on Wednesday weighed the potential for self-driving trucks and large commercial vehicles to improve efficiency in cargo shipping and reduce the number of crashes that occur on the nation’s roads. But critics pointed out that they could also cost thousands of commercial drivers their jobs.

“The public discussion in Congress on autonomous vehicles has tended to focus on the impact of small personal cars on our daily lives — increasing mobility for the disabled, and alleviating congestion in our cities,” said Ken Hall, general secretary-treasurer of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. “I have yet to hear a serious discussion about how we will make sure an 80,0000-pound automated truck will be able to maneuver around a warehouse or drop yard and not injure the countless workers also occupying that same space

Supporters of the autonomous vehicle technology said during a hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee that self-driving trucks could bring new efficiency’s to the nation’s cargo movement. Critics countered that automated trucks carrying heavy cargo loads could be vulnerable to potential hacking and could spark thousands of job losses among commercial drivers.

The discussion came as lawmakers in Congress are considering legislation that would set ground rules for self-driving cars that could also impact trucks and other large commercial vehicles.

American Trucking Associations President Chris Spear said human truck drivers will “be part of our industry for the long haul,” even in a future where trucks are nearly full autonomous. He drew parallels to commercial airline pilots who use autopilot features when flights reach their cruising altitudes, but take over for takeoffs and landings.

“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 pick ups and delivery,” Spear said, noting that the trucking industry spends over $9 billion annually on safety related technology improvements.

“The technology we’re discussing today is the next step in the evolution of the types of safety technology the trucking industry is already investing in,” Spear said.

Spear pressed lawmakers to offer the same protections for self-driving truck operators they are considering for autonomous cars. That includes the ability to apply for pre-emptions from federal rules that require human operators for vehicles and prohibitions on states enacting laws to block self-driving trucks from operating within their borders.

“To fully maximize the safety of other benefits of automated driving technology, it makes sense to provide protections and incentives for innovation in commercial vehicles, not just passenger vehicles,” he said. “As an industry that routinely crosses state lines, the rules of the roads must be the same across the country in order to maintain a free flow of goods. Our industry cannot be subject to a patchwork of rules. We service the entire country and the trucking industry needs uniform rules to do that.”

Deborah Hersman, president and chief executive officer of the National Safety Council and former chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, agreed that automation in the commercial driving industry could reduce the number of crashes that occur on U.S. roadways.

“During my ten years there, I saw too many commercial vehicle crashes that could have been prevented. And they could have been prevented by advanced technology,” Hersman said of her tenure at the NTSB. “The NTSB first called on putting advanced technology on commercial vehicles back in 1995.”

Added the Teamsters’ Hall, expressing concerns that self-driving trucks could become vulnerable to hacking and wreak havoc on employment in the nation’s commercial driving sector:

“Unchecked, this new technology could open our citizens up to having their privacy breached and personal data sold. A truck driver will have to think about having his rig hacked and used as the next weapon in a Nice or Barcelona-style attack, and millions of Americans could have their paychecks decreased because half of their job has now been automated away and their employer thinks that it can get away with no longer paying them the full wage they once did.”

The ambivalence about whether self-driving trucks should be included in the autonomous vehicle legislation that is being considered now by lawmakers was reflected among members of the panel.

“Trucks share our roads, deliver our goods, and keep our economy moving,” said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., who chairs the panel. “Including trucks in the conversation about automated vehicles is important as we seek to improve safety; it also puts our economy on a level playing field as other countries around the world deploy automated freight trucks.”

Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, countered: “In our discussions to date, we have not gotten as clear of an understanding on issues related to self-driving trucks as we have during our countless discussions on self-driving cars. As a result, I am of the mind that highly-automated trucks are not ripe for inclusion in this bill.”

Peters threw cold water on the idea of holding up the self-driving car legislation until rules for trucks can be worked out.

“I also recognize that in the long-term, self-driving trucks and buses are also intended to improve safety on our highways. This is certainly clear,” he said. “But I question assertions that excluding self-driving trucks from this particular bill will result in less safe roads and that they don’t merit special considerations going forward.”

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