Skip to content

Truck rule is first test drive of federal autonomous vehicle oversight

Policies governing self-driving vehicles have largely come from the state and local levels

Robotic truck company Aurora shows off a self-driving semi-truck at the CES tech show in Las Vegas in 2022.
Robotic truck company Aurora shows off a self-driving semi-truck at the CES tech show in Las Vegas in 2022. (Andrej Sokolow/Picture Alliance via Getty Images)

The federal government, which has been slow to complete comprehensive regulations for automated driving systems, is mulling proposed standards for self-driving commercial vehicles. 

The proposed rule is expected this spring from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and would be in many ways a first step, as the bulk of policy governing the autonomous vehicle industry has come from a patchwork of state and local governments. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration has issued only limited autonomous vehicle standards to date.

But even as automakers race to deploy the next generation of self-driving vehicles, sources familiar with federal rule-making say that the administration isn’t likely to propose a framework for passenger vehicles soon.

That runs counter to the wishes of some lawmakers in Congress, like Rep. Bob Latta, R-Ohio, who has introduced legislation multiple times that would require the Transportation Department to create a rule-making plan for the deployment of highly automated vehicles.

“If you want the consumers to adopt something, you want them to have the thought that, ‘This is going to be a safe future,’” Latta said in an interview. “These innovators are out there way past us.”

A self-driving commercial vehicle rule would be significant, said Finch Fulton, government affairs adviser at law firm K&L Gates and former Transportation Department deputy assistant secretary for policy.

It’s expected to address touchy issues about how automatic driving systems should safely move heavy freight across the nation’s highways but also spark fears that technology will eliminate the role of skilled drivers.

“Autonomous trucking is likely to be one of the first types of operations that will go forward in a massively commercial way, across a wide amount of space,” Fulton said. “If companies are able to move forward in the next 12 to 18 months in removing the driver, and then beginning to commercialize, they will be able to start scaling.”

Remote truckers

The proposed rule is expected to address training and certification, drug and alcohol testing and physical qualification requirements for human operators of trucks with autonomous driving systems, even though operators would not be directly controlling the vehicle.

Lewie Pugh, executive vice president at the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, said he was concerned about the possibility of “remote assistants,” or the ability of humans to operate the trucks remotely. These operators would not be able to tighten cargo chains throughout the trip and perform other duties required of drivers by federal, state and local laws, he said.

Safety advocates have joined truckers and unions in urging FMCSA to require high standards for human operators inside a self-driving truck or operating one remotely. In comments to FMCSA, safety group Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety in March warned that if a remote assistant is fatigued, impaired or incapacitated because of a health condition, “the results could be catastrophic.”

“There’s too much diversity and too many things in trucking where you need a human behind the wheel,” Pugh said. “If you can’t get it right in a car, that’s a whole different animal than an 80,000-pound truck.”

Responding to concerns about jobs, self-driving truck manufacturers and carriers argue that new technology is more likely to change how trucking jobs are performed rather than eliminate them entirely. Jeff Farrah, executive director at the Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association, said the technology could help fill in gaps left by a truck driver shortage and that they have a “remarkable safety record.”

“We need help with managing the fleet and, ultimately, a lot of the operations,” Farrah said. “As it stands right now and well into the future we’re hiring these people to help build out this technology.”

Future framework

The federal government’s jurisdiction in regulating self-driving commercial vehicles stems from the trucks’ participation in interstate commerce. But self-driving passenger vehicles are an entirely different beast.

The growing technology is forcing NHTSA to change its role in regulating vehicles, Fulton argued. The agency used to leave operational governance, like driver’s licenses and speed limits, to states. But as the operator function moves from human to vehicle, some of the onus is shifting to the federal government.

“It’s a delicate balance. People should have a say in what sort of technologies are introduced around them. So as we move into the future, it does make sense for there to be one national standard, but we don’t know what that standard would be yet,” Fulton said. “It’s OK for states to shape some of the initial inputs and the initial deployments so that we can learn from them.”

A federal government framework also threatens to preempt the cities and states from regulating the technology — which a handful have already begun to do.

Mississippi and Pennsylvania have greenlighted the testing of fully autonomous vehicles on their roads without a human driver if the vehicle meets certain requirements, and lawmakers in other states like Alabama have proposed similar legislation.

California lawmakers, on the other hand, have proposed beefing up restrictions — especially after an incident in October in which a General Motors Cruise self-driving taxi in San Francisco dragged a pedestrian struck by another vehicle. They reintroduced a bill that would require a trained human operator behind the wheel of self-driving trucks weighing more than 10,000 pounds.

Ryan Posten, associate administrator for rule-making at NHTSA, said the agency is working with local jurisdictions on a regulatory framework as it closely monitors the industry. But he noted recently enacted regulations that already require manufacturers to notify the agency about crashes involving self-driving cars.

Posten added that an “overarching general guidance” for automatic driving systems does exist, in that all vehicles on the road must comply with the agency’s federal motor vehicle safety standards.

In the meantime, Latta’s latest bill, which has yet to be formally introduced, could help jump-start NHTSA’s role in deployment, Fulton said. The proposal would raise the cap on vehicles that don’t comply with federal motor vehicle safety standards, like some autonomous vehicle models that lack federally mandated features such as steering wheels, so manufacturers can ramp up production.

“We’ve learned a lot from the states engaging with the technology, and it’s been, by and large, successful,” he said. “It does make sense that states take a different approach to the technology, while the federal government learns what works best — as long as there is overriding safety oversight that the federal government can jump in and pull a vehicle off the road.”

Recent Stories

Total eclipse of the Hart (and Russell buildings) — Congressional Hits and Misses

House plans to send Mayorkas impeachment articles to Senate on Tuesday

Harris sticks with Agriculture spending, Amodei likely to head DHS panel

Editor’s Note: What passes for normal in Congress

House approves surveillance authority reauthorization bill

White House rattles its saber with warnings to Iran, China about attacking US allies