FMCSA holds public hearing on self-driving trucks

Posted on 04/26/2017 by David Radke


The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration held a public listening session April 24 in Atlanta to discuss the development of regulations pertaining to autonomous commercial vehicles. The audio from the hearing was also streamed online. With ubiquitous self-driving cars and trucks coming closer to reality every day, the FMCSA and industry stakeholders are likely aware that they may already be falling behind in creating legislation to address the myriad legal issues surrounding the technology. Indeed, according to reports from the meeting, the atmosphere in the room was at times tense, and the discussion often impassioned.

Although the meeting delved into other issues regarding transportation regulation, including questions about hours of service and logging devices, Overdrive Magazine reported that the autonomous vehicle issue took on an air of particular urgency. At least one speaker, standing before a panel of FMCSA officials, raised concerns surrounding the ethical dilemmas that pervade almost any discussion of self-driving vehicles. Overdrive Magazine reported on one exchange in particular:

"Trucker Bryan Spoon, a board member of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, [provided] an extreme example of the kinds of safety decisions operators make on the road, invoking a hypothetical near-crash where the choices are to 'hit this brick wall' and destroy the truck or 'deviate and hit kids in a crosswalk,' Spoon said. "What choice does our automated vehicle make?" Destroy itself or "a group of schoolchildren in a crosswalk?" 

Of course, these kinds of questions are difficult to answer definitively, due to the nature of the still-nascent technology as well as the sensitivity of the subject matter. But the question was a valid one in discussing more realistic applications of self-driving tech, some of which are already available in commercial and consumer vehicles. Officials and industry representatives agreed that features including advanced cruise control and lane detection should continue to be implemented in more trucks, since they can help reduce the risk of accidents. At the same time, industry stakeholders cautioned that while these features made driving easier, the developments could not come at the expense of longer working hours. Some have argued that driver-assist technology could paradoxically encourage driver fatigue and distraction without the appropriate regulations.

"If the driver has to be in the truck and has to have some control over it, how many hours in a row can you pay attention doing nothing in a highly-automated-vehicle environment?" asked one industry speaker, according to Overdrive Magazine. "Right now, drivers can drive for 11 hours – you want to extend beyond that? … My biggest concern is how do we keep them occupied, busy and awake."


Officials and industry representatives agreed that features including advanced cruise control and lane detection should continue to be implemented in more trucks, since they can help reduce the risk of accidents.

Questions surrounding CDL updates

A significant portion of the FMCSA meeting also focused on how licensure requirements for commercial drivers would (or should) change, given the new skills involved in operating a highly-automated vehicle. One former driver, Danny Hefner of MCO Transport, offered an emergency situation like a tire blowout as an example for the FMCSA panel. In the event of a blowout on one of the truck's two front tires, the driver must react quickly to maintain control of the vehicle. It is not currently known if or how an automated system would respond to such an event, especially since the driver would potentially be less prepared to deal with it.

"That kind of thing can lead to several highway deaths." Hefner told the panel. That's why he concluded "drivers operating these vehicles should have a special endorsement" in the form of official training, ideally as part of a standard CDL course.

In attendance at the hearing was Ognen Stojanovski, representing Otto, a transportation company recently acquired by ridesharing giant Uber, according to Trucking Info. Ostensibly, Uber's acquisition of Otto was part of its broader goal to develop and implement autonomous driving technology for use in commercial transport. Therefore, Stojanovski was one of the few attendees of the FMCSA hearing who was a staunch advocate for rapid implementation of self-driving tech, and did not see the need for a significant amount of new legislation to address currently available features.

"Existing regulatory measures already ensure drivers are trained and qualified to carry out these tasks," Stojanovski said, according to Heavy Duty Trucking. "Indeed, we are already seeing safety benefits from this technology which require a driver to be engaged and attentive 100% of the time."

Stojanovski also posited that regulators should consider drawing a line between fully automated vehicles and those that are only highly automated. With true driverless technology still years from large scale implementation on public roads, Stojanovski noted, the FMCSA should take care in legislating for a class of workers that does not currently exist.

The FMCSA has been accepting public comments on automation technology in commercial vehicles via email, phone or direct mail, and will continue to do so until July 17.

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