September 13, 2017 4:00 PM, EDT

Drivers Remain Essential Amid Autonomous Technology, Trucking Execs Tell Senate Panel

Ken Hall, general secretary-treasurer of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, right, talks to Chris Spear, president of American Trucking Associations, before a Senate hearing in Washington, D.C. ATA's Chris Spear (left) and the Teamsters' Ken Hall. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)

WASHINGTON — As autonomous technology evolves, drivers will remain integral to the movement of goods and services for the foreseeable future, top trucking executives told senators concerned about potential disruptions in the labor force.

To illustrate their point, the executives suggested that senators envision a bloc of truck drivers in the not-so-distant future as mechanical navigators charged with managing trips, similar to airline pilots whose planes utilize autonomous technologies.

When the age of autonomous vehicles dominates the country’s highways, they argued, the industry would adopt a “driver-assist” approach and not a “driverless” landscape.

“Large-scale displacement of drivers is not likely to happen, especially in the short and medium term,” Navistar Inc. CEO Troy Clarke told the Commerce Committee on Sept. 13. “We believe these technologies will improve safety, improve productivity and lower cost, as well as lead to more efficient use of existing infrastructure.”

American Trucking Associations President Chris Spear echoed much of Clarke’s sentiment.

“We will continue to need human beings in the cabs of our trucks for some time,” Spear said. “In addition to the anticipated safety benefits, what these technologies may do is make those drivers more efficient, make driving a more attractive career choice and attract new people to our industry.”

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The perspective from executives came as senators put the final touches on legislation that would govern autonomous vehicle technology. Republican leaders appear inclined to propose rules for commercial vehicles in the upcoming bill, while Democrats are arguing against it. The potential for jobs displacement within the industry was atop the Democrats’ concerns.

“There’s always disruption,” said Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.). “When they invented the talkies all of the piano players at the silent movie theaters all lost their jobs.”

RELATED: Commerce Department - Autonomous vehicle technology will create winners and losers in transport industries

Earlier in the week, the U.S. Department of Transportation via the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration updated its voluntary automated commercial and passenger vehicle federal guidance for manufacturers and states that plan to deploy self-driving vehicles.

Responding to Democrats critical of the DOT guidance, Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) said their concerns merit a legislative fix.

“For those who think the NHTSA guidance isn’t strong enough, that would argue to me for why we ought to have all these covered by the legislation,” Thune said, without indicating when the committee would take up the measure.