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Self-Driving Trucks Still Have A Long Way To Go

Although many in the trucking manufacturing industry say that self-driving trucks will be a reality waiting just around the proverbial corner, it looks like the vehicles still have a far way to go before we see full implementation on our nation’s roads.

The fact is, legislation that would make it easier to adopt autonomous driving technology on commercial motor vehicles has yet to gain any traction on Capitol Hill. Will this change as the future gets closer?

Although the House passed a bipartisan voice vote to help speed the development of self-driving cars, the legislation, called the Safely Ensuring Lives Future Deployment and Research in Vehicle Evolution (SELF DRIVE) Act, says nothing of commercial motor vehicles.

As written in the legislation verbiage, the Act would assist in the rollout of fully self-driving cars using federal pre-emption of state authority. This basically means that car manufacturers would be exempted from safety standards that are not applicable to self-driving technology. The legislation would also permit the deployment of up to 100,000 self-driving cars annually over the next few years.

Some think that commercial vehicles were cut out of the bill as a nod to labor unions who see self-driving vehicles as a threat to jobs. In fact, the Teamsters Union lobbied very hard to ensure commercial motor vehicles were left out of the bill.

According to a statement from the union, “It is vital that Congress ensure that any new technology is used to make transportation safer and more effective, not used to put workers at risk on the job or destroy livelihoods.”

Movements in the Senate

Even more telling is that the Senate has yet to take up any bill or undertaken any debate surrounding self-driving vehicles of any kind, whether passenger vehicle or commercial motor vehicle. Still, that doesn’t mean they don’t intend to.

Senator John Thune (R-SD), who is the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation is aiming to hold a hearing, titled “Transportation Innovation: Automated Trucks and our Nation’s Highways.” The hearing aims to consider the benefits of self-driving technology and why commercial motor vehicles have been left out of self-driving legislation thus far.

The committee notes state that the hearing is intended to “examine the benefits of automated truck safety technology as well as the potential impacts on jobs and the economy.”

It was also outlined that excluding commercial motor vehicles has been an ongoing topic of discussion in bipartisan efforts to draft self-driving vehicle legislation.

Senator Thune went on to say, in introducing the legislation, that “self-driving technology for trucks and other large vehicles has emerged as a pivotal issue in Congress’ attempt to help usher in a new era of transportation. This hearing will offer all members of the Commerce Committee the opportunity to hear expert testimony on the future highway safety benefits of applying automated technology to trucks as well as perspectives on excluding trucks from legislation affecting small passenger vehicles.”

Scheduled to testify before the committee on the viability of autonomous commercial motor vehicles are Deborah Hersman, the National Safety Council President and CEO and former chair of the National Transportation Safety Board. Representing trucking interests at the hearing will be Chris Spears, President and CEO of the ATA.

The ATA has already outlined a position regarding this topic, as outlined by the association’s spokesperson Sean McNally, who was recently quoted as saying that the “ATA supports the development of this technology and we don’t think it makes sense to write legislation without it applying to all vehicles, and that includes commercial trucks which account for 33.8 million registered vehicles and 450 billion miles traveled annually.”

He went on to say that the ATA views “this legislation, and its soon-to-be introduced companion in the Senate, as a roadmap toward a future that includes more automated vehicles, and that map should provide direction for all highway users. It continues to be our belief that the technologies being developed today will assist, rather than supplant, drivers on the road.”

What’s the Deal with Autonomous Trucks?

When you consider the idea of an autonomous truck, it shouldn’t be hard to also imagine motorists being terrified of the idea of a “driverless” truck wreaking havoc on a highway. After all, a heavy duty commercial motor vehicle can be incredibly dangerous if something were to go wrong.

Where truckers are concerned, imagine if they were to hear that a fleet they work for was considering opting for a self-driving fleet. Could you imagine a greater motivation for the employees of that fleet to make a drive for union representation?

While it is likely that the average motorist will eventually embrace the idea of a self-driving car, minivan or pickup truck, there will likely be a steep learning curve. Even more, smart highway and roadway technology still has a long way to go before we see this become a reality.

Still, many truck drivers worry that once autonomous technology becomes roadworthy and compliant, they may end up out of a job. Fortunately, this may be a misplaced concerned, especially in the age of semi-autonomous commercial motor vehicles.

Many believe that the big push will be towards semi-autonomous vehicles before fully autonomous vehicles. As we have reported in the past, semi-autonomous trucks will likely still require an in-person truck driver to handle driving duties once the truck exits the highway and proceeds onto city streets.

Another consideration factoring into this debate is the ongoing truck driver shortage. It isn’t out of the question to ask if fleets will migrate towards autonomous technology as the truck driver employment squeeze continues to become more acute. If it isn’t looking like we will have enough human drivers to safely transport our goods across the nation, motor carriers may find this technology more appealing.

Growth in the (Semi) Autonomous Market

What is a given is that the global self-driving market is expected to balloon by 40% by 2027. This represents upwards of $126.8 billion by 2027. According to market research firm Infoholic, “The increasing investments from the automakers, the rising consumer demands, and technology advancements in the automotive industry have led to the increased demand for driverless vehicles.”

Their research paper went on to say that “in the current market scenario, self-driving is not just limited to cars but is also gaining popularity among public transport and trucks. Thus, most of the enterprise sectors including retail, manufacturing, transportation, and logistics will prefer autonomous vehicles for delivery purposes in the future.”

The report goes on to segment the market and analyze it by specific product, vehicle and operating type. It also parses the data out by operational region. Software, hardware and services are expected to dominate the autonomous and semi-autonomous markets for the foreseeable future.

According to the Infoholic report, “The software segment is mainly driven by the fully autonomous vehicles when compared to semi-autonomous vehicles. Hardware providers have new business opportunities due to different types of components that will be used in autonomous vehicles. Additionally, hardware market share is expected to drop in the coming years as the adoption rate of autonomous vehicles increases.”

If you look at the North American region as the leading theater for autonomous vehicle adoption, then look no further. According to Infoholic, North America is “an attractive destination for key stakeholders due to the availability of high-end infrastructure, rising investments from automakers, and government initiatives.”

The Asia Pacific region will also be vital to determining how this industry develops. China, India and Japan are all looking to lead the market in these technologies. Indeed, China has already stated the lofty goal of phasing out gasoline and diesel vehicles sometime in the near future.

India’s government has also expressed interest in supporting electric and autonomous vehicles. Partnerships and merger and acquisition strategies will play a big role in how much these technologies are adopted, not just in North America and China, but globally.

The Final Word

There are a lot of stakeholders that have plenty to consider when it comes to the autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicle discussion. From truck drivers who fear being left in the dust as robots take over to fleets who may seek to cut costs and increase efficiency by employing these technologies.

Indeed, both unions and lawmakers have a lot to consider when putting legislation to the table governing self-driving technologies. Will industry lobbyists win out? Are technology companies up to the task of ensuring these advanced self-driving technologies are safe?

There is plenty of debate to go around. Right now, only time will tell if the industry will see any traction in the use of these technologies, whether now or moving forward, and there are plenty who are happy about that.

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