The Need for Speed in Automated Truck Policy – WSI

I recently read that in the 1970s, Congress held hearings and engaged in serious discussions about whether or not a personal computer could be trusted not to read the brainwaves of its users. This is a fine example of how those responsible for regulating technology tend to trip over what they don’t understand. That’s why I found myself relieved when the American Trucking Associations (ATA) released its proposal for an automated truck policy.

Without input from experts who actually operate in the trenches, disruptive technologies can get regulated right out of existence. Remember Napster? The regulatory hiccups generated by the technology pushed it into the courts, underground, and then out of business. Without an appropriate framework in place for automated trucks, those too could wind up being only a flash in the pan.

The State vs. Federal Dilemma

Fortunately, the ATA has offered up a basis for regulators to use when building a federal policy in regard to automated trucks. One of the key points in their proposal involves empowering the federal government to do the heavy lifting. Automated trucks will primarily support long-distance interstate commerce, and letting individual states develop their own sets of regulations regarding the technology will only stunt market potential and development.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m usually a big proponent of state’s rights and using multiple state regulatory models as a trial-and-error playground for new technologies. At this point, however, we can’t afford to let mixed regulations stifle a technology that the trucking industry desperately needs.

The ATA projected that the truck driver shortage will hit 50,000 by the end of 2017. Trucking needs automated solutions to provide capacity and meet growing demand, and manufacturers of those solutions can’t afford to tailor every vehicle based on what region or state it will operate in. Instead, a strong federal policy will provide consistency, which will drive growth in the national market and spur developmental advancements in the technology itself.

The Driver Debate

Anyone who pays attention to the driverless truck issue can tell you that opponents fear the loss of truck driving jobs, but our truck driver shortage will continue to grow. NAFTA renegotiations could force the driver gap to expand even further—and why is it so hard to fill these jobs?

Because driving is hard. It’s a rare driver that still enjoys long-haul trucking. The hours are grueling. The time away from friends and family makes it worse. Many long-haul drivers wind up leaving the industry altogether as soon as they find something that lets them stay at home. The fact is, most drivers would rather operate regional routes, and automated trucks will let them do that. Let the driverless vehicle handle the coast-to-coast routes while human truckers do the short hauls and Last Mile.

The benefits of automated technology will help these drivers as well. Better collision warning systems will keep them safe. Better GPS will help them run on time. Trucks that can run long stretches on their own will give them time to do paperwork or eat lunch without losing miles.

At WSI, we’re acutely aware that this driver shortage is not sustainable long-term. Every transportation provider knows this. We’re also aware that automated trucks could solve this problem entirely within a matter of years. Instead of batting the idea around regulatory agencies for the next five years—Prime Air anyone?—regulators must take the ATA’s proposal seriously, and use it as a basis for policies that aid in the development and testing of automated vehicles across state lines.