Keith J. Bucklew, Freight Planning Practice Leader, HDR
AUTONOMOUS VEHICLES COULD RESHAPE THE TRUCKING INDUSTRY, PRESENTING A SOLUTION TO IMPROVE SAFETY AND CAN BE A FREIGHT MOBILITY MULTIPLIER TO SUPPORT SUPPLY CHAIN EFFICIENCY AND RELIABILITY. BUT A PATCHWORK OF STATE LAWS CREATES A HINDRANCE TO IMPLEMENTING EMERGING TECHNOLOGY.
Currently the United States has no federal guidelines for how autonomous trucking vehicles should operate. In the absence of uniform standards, the trucking industry should unite to encourage states to act jointly to create consistent regulations for the implementation of new technology.
In sports, a football team knows, regardless of where they play, that the field dimensions and game rules are the same, but that is not true for the trucking industry. It’s as if Soldier Field in Chicago was twice as long as the field at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles. That discrepancy would invite chaos.
With the absence of consistency, the freight technology playing field can be an operational quagmire. The trucking industry should speak as one voice to advocate for both federal and state uniform regulations.
THE STATE OF AUTONOMOUS OPERATIONS
Technology to support autonomous operations of trucks is now a reality, with testing and pilot projects ongoing. These advancements could revolutionize the trucking industry through improved safety, better fuel mileage and increased productivity. At a time when the industry is grappling with a severe lack of drivers, this edge could be a game-changer.
However, liability issues loom large in the path to implementation. Rising insurance costs already plague the industry, and increased technology and equipment costs are furthering the hike.
This issue is potentially exacerbated by state legislatures, each with well-intentioned regulatory actions. This game plan may likely manifest into a patchwork of de-harmonized requirements that render interstate freight movement challenging.
For example, one state may allow trucks with autonomous technology to operate at Level 5 (full automation without a driver in the cab) while an adjacent state may allow Level 4 (high automation but requires a driver to be in the driver’s seat). A truck that is crossing a state line may need to adjust its technology automation level to comply with respective state regulations.
Incongruent regulations will stifle carriers trying to adopt new technologies. Standardized regulations would create a common playing field and provide certainty to the trucking industry, which would be a catalyst to broader adoption of technologies—and their benefits.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN?
So far, the private sector’s appetite to implement technology for autonomous operation is moving faster than government entities’ reactions to implement safety regulations. As legislation moves forward, the trucking industry should unite in its efforts to proactively communicate the benefits, lead discussions, and help guide federal and state regulatory actions.
The trucking industry must be in the driver’s seat to steer the implementation of autonomous technology down the regulatory roadway. This technology can improve and solve safety and carrier operating costs, reduce the need for truck parking, and improve air quality in conjunction with alternative fuels. Interstate commerce is highly important, and technology—including autonomous vehicles—can be the catalyst to provide reliability and safety to industrial supply chains.
The transportation technology game has moved into the red zone but must get to the end zone to be effective. There is strong momentum, and soon it will be first and goal. We can all win if we establish one set of rules for everyone.