At a time when the majority of Americans say they have trepidation about driverless cars, the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday grappled with the prospect of driverless trucks.
At issue is whether to include trucks in a Senate bill that otherwise deals with regulations and guidance for driverless cars.
The trucking industry says it needs 50,000 truck drivers right now and will need an estimated 960,000 drivers in the next 10 years, so the prospect of trucks that drive themselves might seem like an easy solution.
"The prospect of self-driving trucks raises a very different set of issues from self-driving cars," Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) said. Stakeholders, he said, have "serious concerns with including self-driving trucks in this bill without a much more robust discussion and evaluation of the impact. "I am of the mind that highly-automated trucks are not right for inclusion in this bill," Peters said.
While Teamsters union general secretary Ken Hall raised the prospect terrorists might convert driverless trucks into attack vehicles, as they did using drivers in Nice and Barcelona, four others who testified before the committee said rules for trucks that might someday become driverless should proceed apace with those for cars. Committee Chairman Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) appeared to agree. "I would argue that it doesn't make sense to have two safety standards out there, one for trucks and one for cars," Thune said.
Chris Spear, president of the American Trucking Associations, said fully-driverless trucks won't arrive for decades.
Instead, driver assisted technology will become more prevalent in highway operations, but not on city streets.
"We think the driver's still going to be in the seat," Spear said. "Drivers are going to play an integral part in the cityscape, [with] pick ups and deliveries. The world of the automated vehicle still will have a key role for drivers."
He said the industry has been working with regulators and federal security agencies to avoid the terrorist hacking threat Hall envisioned.
Troy Clarke, president of truck manufacturer Navistar, said potential hacking is an immediate problem for the trucking industry since he estimated 40 percent of trucks on the road are connected via computer to outside sources.
"The recognition of this has energized our industry to work together like few things that I have seen," Clarke said. "We will not go to market or test without proper safeguards."
Deborah A.P. Hersman, president of the National Safety Council and former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, supports inclusion of trucking in the committee bill.
" We need one level of safety for everyone who is on the highways," she said.
Dealing with trucks can be intimidating. The prospect they one day will be driving themselves is enough to give most people pause. Just the thought of autonomous cars is causing more people misgivings, surveys have shown, but autonomous trucks?
The overall advent of autonomous technology suffers from two problems in the public perception: the conceit of most people that their driving skills are better than average, and their fear of giving control to a computer.
Hersman countered that perception with the oft-mentioned statistic that 94 percent of crashes are caused by human error, and gave assurance the advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) that eventually will lead to fully-autonomous cars and trucks will greatly reduce the estimated 40,000 traffic fatalities last year.
"With proper testing and control, this is the game changer," said Hersman, who holds a commercial trucking license.
She said trucks make up 4 percent of the vehicles on the roadways, but are involved in 11 percent of fatal crashes that kill more than 4,000 people each year. Trucks are three times more likely to cause a fatal crash by plowing into the rear of another vehicle, often a car driven by someone who switches into the truck's lane without awareness of the distance it takes for a loaded truck to brake.
Hersman told the committee requiring ADAS systems like forward collision warning and automatic braking could prevent thousands of deaths and injuries each year.
Despite the assurances of Spears, both Peters and Hall said they remained concerned about whether driverless trucks would imperial the 3.5 million truck drivers. That drew a response from Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.)
"When they invented the talkies, all the piano players in the silent movie theaters all lost their jobs," Markey said. "Time moves on."