October 26, 2016 11:45 AM, EDT

Advisory Panel Asks FMCSA to 'Get a Seat at the Table' on Autonomous Truck Issues

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WASHINGTON —  A Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration advisory committee formally asked the agency to get “proactive and involved” with a Department of Transportation inter-agency group to get the commercial motor vehicle industry “a seat at the table” to work on the design, safety and regulatory aspects of autonomous trucks.

“If people are meeting and talking about this, don’t just sit back but invite yourself to the table and get in on these talks,” said David Parker, senior legal counsel for Great West Casualty Co., a member of the FMCSA Motor Carrier Safety Advisory Committee. “Don’t let the auto people or the manufacturers of autos sort of take over.”

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The committee’s request followed an Oct. 25 discussion of the broad-based panel on their safety concerns and hopes for the future of driverless trucks.

MCSAC's chairman, Col. Scott Hernandez of the Colorado State Patrol, asked the committee to begin a discussion of autonomous trucks only hours after an announcement that an Otto self-driving Class 8 tractor and its trailer completed a 120¬-mile delivery in Colorado for AnheuserBusch InBev, calling it the world’s first shipment by a self-driving truck.

“All of a sudden it’s here,” Hernandez told committee members. “It was shockingly quicker down the road than most people would imagine.”

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Committee members agreed, and several expressed concerns that the technological aspects of autonomous trucks was moving faster than the regulatory framework to ensure that the driverless vehicles would be safe on U.S. highways.

There was a general perception expressed by committee members that the auto industry and a handful of states were ahead of federal regulators in testing and issuing regulatory guidelines for autonomous vehicles.     

“I think I’d like to know what both the private sector and a handful of states are actually doing,” Larry Minor, FMCSA associate administrator for policy, told Transport Topics. “We see that states have actually adopted something, but we need to get a better idea of how detailed and if they actually ensure safety. We definitely want to do a deeper dive to find out exactly [what] they adopted, and exactly what does it cover.” 

“The technology itself offers tremendous hope for a safer traffic environment,” said committee member Gary Catapano, senior vice president of safety for First Student Inc. “Autonomous vehicles obey the traffic regulations, assuming they are designed properly. ... But they’re going to shake the very foundation of all the things that everybody in this room do. And I think it will happen much quicker than we all suspect.”

Catapano said he had concerns that the use of WiFi technology presents potential security challenges.

“I think there’s a lot of potential here,” said Jennifer Hall, general counsel for American Trucking Associations and newly-appointed MCSAC member. “ATA has been out there talking about the potential, but there are risks.”

Hall added, “The most important thing is that the commercial side of transportation and highway transportation needs to get involved. At this point the focus has been on the passenger vehicle side.”

“I think this is going to change so many aspects of all of our lives,” said committee member Steve Owings, Atlanta financial advisor and co-founder of Road Safe America. “The difficult part is how we get from where we are now to what it promises ultimately. There are a whole lot of questions and problems from here to there.”

Some of those questions include enforcement of the driverless vehicles, their impact on insurance, and ultimately, who is liable for an accident when there is no one in the driver’s seat, Owings added.