Two trucking groups raise questions about autonomous big-rigs

Posted: October 29, 2017 at 1:54 a.m.

This past week two influential trucking groups published guidance on the development of autonomous big-rigs, including some concepts that continue to make motorists uneasy.

The American Trucking Associations and the American Transportation Research Institute released research notes that are among the first to explore the nuances of self-driving trucks. Most of the autonomous vehicle conversation has focused on cars and pickups.

Overall, the industry pitch to the government and the public has emphasized that America's highways will become safer as fewer human errors clog up the roads with congestion and crashes. Both research notes call for the nation's travel infrastructure to be improved and updated, so self-driving vehicles can safely navigate to their destinations.

"Shifts of this magnitude do not come often -- and may prove to be as momentous as the building of the interstate system and deregulation," the American Transportation Research Institute study said in its conclusion.

The American Trucking Associations report said the industry needs more clarity with jurisdiction. Interstate commerce has federal oversight, but the association goes further, saying the federal government should be the sole regulators of "performance and technical" requirements of automated trucks.

So far, little of this has been addressed by lawmakers. Autonomous vehicle bills floating through Capitol Hill do not address autonomous 18-wheelers. Efforts this fall to include them were put on ice.

Traditional insurance coverage and regulations are written with human operators in mind. With the influx of automating accessories, questions are being raised -- if a big-rig crashes into a car on the highway, and nobody is in the driver's seat, who is responsible for the damage? What if the truck is driving itself, but there is a "driver" on board? Do truckers even need to be sober, or pass Department of Transportation drug tests, if they're not physically driving, only working inside the cab?

The American Transportation Research Institute researchers fret that the various levels of automation will disrupt how the government "scores" carriers' safety records. Its paper showcases the levels of autonomy, from 0, where the driver is in complete control, to 5, meaning the truck is completely autonomous. If the truck can drive itself, who is to blame in a wreck?, the American Transportation Research Institute asks. These scores are vital to carriers, because they determine whether they are legally allowed to drive.

Wannalitha Anderson, 32, works at Simmons Foods. Her first job there was in transportation, so she sees eye-to-eye with truckers. The proposition of driverless fleets may be "kind of scary" she said, but may come with benefits -- namely, weeding out hurried and impatient drivers from America's roadways and "not having to deal with fatigued truckers."

"On the flip side," she said, "what if the [equipment] malfunctions? I wouldn't blame the trucker."

Filling up his car Wednesday evening in Fayetteville, Ryne Pope, 26, said he's already uncertain even about self-driving cars, much less multi-ton commercial vehicles. When asked, he immediately shut down the idea of allowing drivers to misuse prohibited drugs -- whether controlling it or not -- of a moving truck.

"You're in the truck for a reason," Pope said. "If something does go wrong, you need to be of sound mind to take care of it."

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