As developments surrounding the emerging autonomous vehicle space occurs at a dizzying pace, it’s becoming more apparent that this technology will bring a wide range of benefits if deployed properly. One major sector of the economy, the trucking industry, promises to see enormous changes, many of which will be for the better. In fact, the recent development of Otto, a self-driving truck owned by Uber, carrying a truckload of beer across Colorado underscores how far the technology has already come, and its seemingly limitless potential.
One major sector of the economy, the trucking industry, promises to see enormous changes from autonomy, many of which will be for the better.
Speaking on a panel on Wednesday at an event hosted by Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE), the American Trucking Associations’ (ATA) President and CEO Chris Spear discussed how the industry is wrestling with the quick transition to autonomy, the positives that will emerge, and why the sector should have a seat at the table when government crafts legislation and regulation.
“In the next 3-5 years, there’s going to be a shift to our industry,” Spear told the audience on Capitol Hill. The trucking sector will benefit enormously from the move to autonomous vehicles because they will reduce costs for the industry and eliminate the amount of time trucks spend in traffic as a result of congestion. Self-driving trucks will also allow drivers to multi-task and properly handle fatigue. Contrary to what some have argued, autonomous trucks won’t fully take the driver out of the equation. Spear compared future truck drivers of autonomous vehicles to airplane pilots, who are on autopilot at high altitude, but are hands-on at takeoff and landing. Likewise, for long-haul truckers, they will steer through city streets and through congested areas but will be on autopilot throughout most of the trip. “You’re going to still need the driver to navigate cityscapes, to the pickups and the deliveries,” he said.
Contrary to what some have argued, autonomous trucks won’t fully take the driver out of the equation.
Pointing out that the transition to autonomy will be an evolution that takes decades, Spear noted how much work needs to be done, and called on members of Congress and their staff to help shape an inclusive regulatory approach among government agencies. With trucking to be greatly affected by the overhaul to autonomy, the industry wants a bigger seat at the table when shaping legislation and regulations.
“Our industry was not included in the process, despite what was said,” Spear said, referring to the Department of Transportation (DOT) crafting recent guidelines on autonomy. “We were never at the table. We never had any input.”
“Inclusivity of all modes is going to be key for autonomous vehicles,” he added. “You have to have all modes developing this. The Hill is well-equipped to drive outcomes that are inclusive of all modes.”
Other speakers on the panel also noted how technological innovation is moving quicker than regulatory changes. Henry Claypool, a member of the SAFE Autonomous Vehicle Task Force, told the audience that issues slowing the adoption of autonomous vehicles will surround regulation more so than technology.
Spear brought up thorny issues of state versus national regulation, pointing out how his industry—which relies heavily on interstate commerce—would be negatively affected if the feds don’t take leadership on oversight. “Look at what the states are doing…[with] a lot of innovation incubated at that level,” Spear said. “But you don’t want a patchwork,” he said, referring to business and consumers having to deal with different driverless laws throughout the 50 states.
On the national level, there are a number of different agencies that will have their hands on the regulation of autonomous cars, Spear pointed out, not just the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). NHTSA, part of the DOT, has taken the lead with recent guidelines, but other agencies will be involved. For example, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will need to set rules and guidance for the infrastructure needed for vehicles to communicate with each other.
With all the benefits of autonomous vehicles, the push to bring them smoothly to the public may be end up being nonpartisan.
Mitch Bainwol, the President and CEO of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, noted how regulators need to be “nimble and flexible” in managing the transition to autonomy. NHTSA’s quick move to develop guidance is good sign that reflects how government is moving as fast as it can without compromising safety. Given that current data show about 35,000 people dying per year in traffic, panelists urged a quick adoption of autonomous vehicles.
Bainwol also struck a positive note regarding how lawmakers will approach the issue moving forward. Given that there is a lot of acrimony in politics, it would be unfortunate if issues surrounding driverless cars get bogged down in partisanship. However, with all the benefits of autonomous vehicles, from increased safety, to more efficient fuel consumption, to access to mobility and transportation for all segments of society, the push to bring them smoothly to the public may be end up being nonpartisan.
During the first part of next decade, there could be a tipping point in the penetration of electric vehicles. This transition will depend on costs coming down for automakers and consumer acceptance.
Also discussed at the panel was whether autonomous vehicles will be electric. In order for sharp fuel savings to occur and for the U.S. to reduce dependence on oil, it’s important that self-driving cars run on electricity instead of petroleum. Steve Levine, author of The Powerhouse and Washington correspondent for Quartz, said that autonomous vehicles will not necessarily be electric. He did, however, note that groups advocating for slicing dependence on oil should push for the electrification of the self-driving fleet as the transition to autonomy takes place. Levine, citing a study by Bloomberg New Energy Finance, said that during the first part of next decade, there could be a tipping point in the penetration of electric vehicles. This transition will depend on costs coming down for automakers and consumer acceptance.