Autonomous trucking: In search of answers

Dec. 7, 2016
An autonomous truck delivery only brings more questions

We are seeing this happen before our very eyes, that is, real occurrences of what we all believed would happen in the future. And it is clearly happening in the now and no doubt will occur many more times in the years, months, and probably even weeks ahead.

So, you may be asking yourself, “What the heck is he talking about?”  As it seems to be the flavor of the day in D.C. and in the trade publications, and following on the heels of an autonomous beer delivery, we are now faced with the development of a new normal in our industry.

Until October of this year, a driver­less beer truck would have only been thought of as the punchline at a fraternity party or even a top-notch Super Bowl commercial. But knowing that this is now a reality has made conversations about the future turn to conversations about the present. While this is all very futuristic and high tech, it has spurred questions about anything and everything and has rendered many provisions of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations to be dated or eventually useless.

Hours of service, ELDs, and vehicle inspections are just a few of the things that may be rendered obsolete unless the rules are changed. Think about hours-of-service regulations for a moment. We are operating under HOS rules that haven’t even been sorted out,  yet we now have something else to think about.

Picture this: The “driver” of that beer truck sits in the sleeper berth for 120 mi. of a trip down Interstate 25 while his truck operates autonomously. The first question that comes to mind is, how is it logged? The answer: On-duty driving. The reality is that the driver was not really driving. In fact, the driver  resided in the sleeper berth during this historic trek. 

The greater question is where in the record are conversations regarding autonomous vehicles taking place, and what steps need to be taken for those who want to be involved in the process. This technology seems to be  moving along at such a brisk pace that it is leading to questions being asked that our industry is ill-prepared to answer.

Don’t get me wrong. I am proud to be part of an industry that is often ahead of the regulatory curve when it comes to new technology. In fact, our carriers today are so advanced that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety  Administration proposed a rule that may reward them for being ahead of the regulations with its proposal of the Beyond Compliance program. 

Technologies such as ELDs, F-CAM, and hair testing for drugs and alcohol are so forward-thinking that carriers have active programs in place that employ these advances and are doing so without any regulation being set by the government.

That being said, since the beer run took place,  many questions have been asked that have left a ton  of uncertainty in the air. Certainly, the DOT  Federal Automated Vehicles Policy encourages the safe and responsible deployment of automated vehicles; however, it is not trucking-specific. One would think that the vastness of trucking would dictate its very own policy, but that is not the case.

We as an industry are on the precipice of doing something truly great, something that we once imagined and now are tempting to employ. A future with different regulations, operating schemes, and most likely infrastructure improvements as a whole is upon us. It is our job as truckers, as an industry, and as Americans to ensure that it is done the right way so that the ultimate goal of reducing accidents and fatalities on our roadways can truly be achieved. 

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