United States: Buckle Up: Autonomous Commercial Vehicles Are Coming To A Road Near You

Lawrence J Hamilton II is a Partner in our Jacksonville office and Jeffrey R Seul is a Partner in our Boston office.

While most of the buzz about autonomous vehicles involves passenger vehicles, autonomous trucks soon will become a reality, too. Large driverless trucks! Although it sounds implausible, and perhaps frightening to some, it will happen.

According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Association (FMCSA), "highly automated vehicles (HAVs) are those in which the vehicle can take full control of the driving tasks in at least some circumstances. HAVs hold enormous potential benefits for safety, mobility, and sustainability." The FMCSA further noted that "public discussions regarding HACVs (highly automated commercial vehicles) have become much more prominent in recent months as developers continue efforts to demonstrate and test the viability of advanced driver assistance systems on large commercial vehicles. FMCSA encourages the development of these advanced safety technologies for use on commercial vehicles."

Thus, the debate has evolved to the point that it appears to be a question of when, not whether, self-driving trucks will be traveling U.S. roads.

According to panelists at a Transportation Research Board meeting held in Washington D.C., earlier this year, autonomous commercial vehicles are coming faster than expected - perhaps within five years. Indeed, self-driving trucks are already out and being tested on public roads. For instance, Ottomotto LLC (Otto), an autonomous technology subsidiary of Uber, developed a self-driving truck which, in October 2016, delivered 51,744 cans of beer 120 miles across Colorado (from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs) with no driver at the wheel. Volvo Trucks is selling a fully autonomous truck for production use in mining, where there is limited risk to human life if the new technology malfunctions.

Semi-autonomous trucks already are becoming common on our streets and highways. Proponents assert that autonomous vehicles do not get distracted, have faster reaction times and are safer than those operated by drivers. Bendix Commercial Vehicle Systems has developed safety technology, including collision mitigation with radar and camera technology as well as automatic emergency braking, that is offered on certain models of commercial trucks.

In addition to potentially helping solve the chronic shortage of truck drivers, autonomous vehicles also are being touted as offering environmentally "green" benefits. Anthony Levandowski, the CEO of Otto, asserted during his presentation at the Transportation Research Board meeting that automated driving could help reduce 6.9 billion hours and 3.1 billion gallons of fuel that are allegedly wasted per year. For instance, platooning technology, which involves digitally tethered trucks traveling in single file to reduce drag, will be tested by trucking fleets this year, according to Fred Andersky of Bendix. Navistar also has developed a predictive cruise control system that continuously calculates the most efficient speed and gear for optimal fuel economy.

While driverless technology is rapidly evolving, rules and regulations must be developed and implemented before autonomous commercial vehicles can operate on a widespread basis. Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) established an advisory committee to focus on pressing transportation issues, including the development and deployment of autonomous vehicles. The committee includes an impressive mix of professionals and experts.

In addition, the FMCSA conducted a public listening session on April 24, 2017, and collected comments through July 17, 2017, on issues "relating to the design, development, testing, and deployment of highly automated commercial vehicles." Specifically, the FMCSA requested "information on issues that need to be addressed to ensure that the Federal safety regulations provide appropriate standards for the safe operation of HACVs from design and development through testing and deployment." Toward that end, the FMCSA requested comments, in the context of highly automated commercial vehicles, regarding numerous FMCSA regulatory provisions that currently apply to drivers, equipment and commercial vehicles. As would be expected, the 40 comments submitted to the FMCSA were mixed, for and against autonomous commercial vehicles.

While numerous issues and problems remain to be resolved before fully autonomous commercial vehicles will be operating on our roads, sharing them with autonomous passenger and commercial vehicles, appears to be inevitable. It is coming at an accelerated pace, so buckle up.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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