October 4, 2017 1:15 PM, EDT

Senate Committee Approves Self-Driving Vehicles Bill Without Trucking Policy

Sen.James Inhofe Sen. James Infhofe via YouTube

The effort to attach trucking-centric provisions to a Senate bill on self-driving vehicles did not materialize after a key senator withdrew an amendment during the bill’s consideration Oct. 4.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) acknowledged he lacked the requisite support for an amendment that would have ensured the adoption of truck policy in the measure during a much-anticipated Commerce Committee markup.

Inhofe, whose amendment had gained backing from top Republicans, strongly criticized the exclusion of commercial vehicles.

“Without this amendment, many motor vehicles, including delivery trucks, emergency vehicles and tractor-trailers, would be excluded,” Inhofe said. “Treating cars and trucks differently when it comes to federal pre-emption or the ability to test innovation and emerging technologies will hinder efforts to develop and adopt newer and safer technology.”

Indiana Republican Sen. Todd Young, a co-sponsor of Inhofe’s amendment who advocated for enhanced safety along highways at the hearing, echoed much of the Oklahoma Republican’s sentiment.

“By not including large trucks, Americans are going to have to wait longer to bring lifesaving technologies to market,” Young said. “By not including large trucks, I really just think we’re missing the boat here. The interstate nature of longhaul driving makes it especially important that we include large trucks. This is our responsibility.”

American Trucking Associations joined a cadre of groups and freight companies in pushing for the inclusion of trucking policy in the bill. Ahead of the hearing, ATA President Chris Spear wrote to Inhofe to say it was “simply inconceivable that this legislation would favor one type of vehicle over another.”

“This bill is about developing the technology that will bring about improvements in safety and productivity and reductions in fuel burn, emissions and congestion,” Spear added.

While ATA notes that current autonomous technology is built around “driver-assist” functionality that necessitates drivers, opponents of Inhofe’s amendment continue to argue autonomous trucks will displace many commercial drivers or disrupt their status industrywide.

The Senate legislation, which the committee easily advanced to the chamber’s floor, will likely be taken up before the end of the year, committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) said prior to adjourning the hearing. The bill’s advancement to the floor represented the culmination of years-long negotiations between policymakers and stakeholders. Overall, it would seek to pave the way to allow self-driving cars on roadways, clarify oversight of the technology and require new federal safety standards.

The House recently passed its version, which also excluded trucking-centric policy.

“Today’s vote underscores the bipartisan desire to move ahead with self-driving vehicle technology,” Thune said. “Sen. [Gary] Peters and the members of the Commerce Committee deserve credit for working together to move this bill forward toward Senate floor consideration and collaboration with our colleagues in the House of Representatives. The safety and economic benefits of self-driving vehicles are too critical to delay.”

“Self-driving vehicles will make transformative changes to improve mobility, reduce accidents and enhance safety for millions of travelers on our roads,” Peters (D-Mich.) added.

Last month, the U.S. Department of Transportation updated its voluntary automated commercial and passenger vehicle guidance for manufacturers and states seeking to deploy self-driving vehicles. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao emphasized the potential safety benefits autonomous vehicles would bring to the transportation network.

An impediment slowing the deployment of self-driving technology is incompatible infrastructure nationwide. Vehicle-to-vehicle as well as vehicle-to-infrastructure communication are requisites to facilitate access to the technology. Neither have been widely deployed.