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Trucking Industry Questions New Federal Self-Driving Vehicle Policy

By Jerry Hirsch6

The trucking industry expressed division over the new federal policy for autonomous cars and trucks issued Tuesday by the Obama administration.

While some truck and commercial vehicle manufacturers hailed the new Department of Transportation guidelines as an important step toward an era in which autos drive themselves, other segments of the industry protested being shut out of the consulting process leading to the new rules.

“It is disconcerting that the department and the administration have developed these guidelines with virtually no involvement from the trucking industry,” Chris Spear, chief executive of the American Trucking Associations, wrote in a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx on Tuesday.

The trucking industry moves almost 70 percent of the domestic freight in the U.S., and “any safety and highway infrastructure debate and regulatory framework that excludes trucking is incomplete,” said Spear, who heads the industry’s largest trade group.

He urged Foxx “to bring commercial highway users to the table.”

But in the Federal Automated Vehicles Policy document, Foxx said there was plenty of time for discussion with interested parties.

“We expect vigorous input and welcome it,” Foxx said.

The policy is expected to be published in the Federal Register this week. A 60-day comment period will follow the posting.

Regulators from the Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said the guidelines would foster technology that would reduce the frequency of fatalities and crashes on U.S. roads.

More than 35,000 people died in roadway collisions in 2015, and 94 percent of the crashes “can be tied to a human choice or error,” according to the Transportation Department.

In a news conference, Foxx called the policy “a moment where we can build a culture of safety as a new transportation technology emerges that harnesses the potential to save even more lives and that will improve the quality of life for so many Americans.”

The guidelines are designed to allow computers to take over many, and eventually all, of the driving functions in a vehicle. The rules apply to cars, trucks and commercial vehicles.

The new policy includes a 15-point safety assessment for manufacturers, developers and other organizations to guide the safe design, development, testing and deployment of automated vehicles.

Traffic safety regulators have developed a five-level scale to assess vehicle automation, concentrating on Level 3 – where the automated system “can both actually conduct some parts of the driving task with a human driver behind the wheel to take over” – to Level 5, where “the automated system can perform all driving tasks.”

The policy has wide support from safety groups.

“We have the same goal as NHTSA; we want to save lives,” said Colleen Sheehey-Church, national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. “The announcement with the Department of Transportation is just an incredible step forward in improving all areas of highway safety.”

Unlike humans, computers will never drive while intoxicated, Sheehey-Church said.

“Today, the driving public is the winner,” said Deborah Hersman, chief executive of the National Safety Council. “This policy gives carmakers and states the green light to innovate while keeping safety at the forefront.”

Some segments of the trucking industry also supported the government’s initiative.

“This kind of collaborative environment between the federal government, state and municipal entities and industry often leads to swift and safe adoption of technologies that are beneficial to society in a way that avoids a nationwide patchwork of varied and potentially conflicting laws,” said Jessica Nigro, spokeswoman for Daimler Trucks.

Daimler Trucks has been testing a self-driving Freightliner in Nevada and autonomous trucks in Europe.

Earlier this month, Daimler Trucks’ corporate sibling Mercedes-Benz released design plans for an electric delivery vehicle that could operate in congested city centers and use drones to take packages to people’s doorsteps. There’s no steering wheel or pedals in the van. Instead, a drive-by-wire control system integrates all steering and driving functions electronically. The operator uses a joystick to guide the van.

A wider coalition of manufacturers, transportation and technology companies also supported the new policy.

“This is an important step forward in establishing the basis of a national framework for the deployment of self-driving vehicles,” said David Strickland, a former NHTSA administrator and spokesman for the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets.

The coalition consists of major players in the self-driving vehicle movement, including Google, Ford, Uber, Lyft and Volvo cars, which is a separate business from the Volvo truck company.

Several of the coalition members either make trucks or are researching self-driving commercial vehicles. Uber, for example, purchased self-driving truck developer Otto last month.

Ford is looking to use its driverless technology for several potential markets, including both car-sharing and delivery services. It is part of an initiative to have a fully self-driving car — without a steering wheel or driver controls — ready for ride-hailing companies by 2021.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office awarded Google a patent for a self-driving delivery truck.

Spear said members of the trucking association are not rejecting technology and, in fact, are pushing forward researching and developing autonomous driving systems.

Features such as adaptive cruise control and lane-assist technologies are already deployed in trucks. The industry is testing platooning – where two or more trucks are connected digitally and drive in tight formation to save fuel. In some tests, the driver of the first semi-truck can control the other vehicles in the platoon.

“Some freight company leaders are predicting a day when professional truck drivers are more like pilots – heavily involved ‘taking off’ from the terminal and ‘landing at the destination,’ but engaging an auto-pilot on open stretches of highways,” Spear wrote in his letter.

But he said the federal guidelines for autonomous-vehicle technologies will have “significant impacts to commercial freight companies, drivers and customers, as well as safety and our environment.”

“Vehicles operating autonomously,” he said, “will need to be capable of interacting safely, whether through vehicle-to-vehicle technology or communicating through other means.”

Other regulatory issues will be affected. Heavy-duty truck drivers, for example, are currently regulated on how many hours they can drive during predetermined time periods, “and how autonomous technologies impact these regulations is important to consider,” Spear said.

Some carriers ship specialized freight – such as live animals and hazardous materials – that require special consideration for movement and regulation.

The regulatory discussion needs to address such situations, he said.

“Any policy framework that ignores these potential downstream impacts will be ill-informed,” Spear said. staff writer Clarissa Hawes contributed to this report.