ATRI: Patchwork of Laws Limiting Autonomous Trucks

Government rules about autonomous trucks are holding back significant transformations to modern freight movement, according to a recent study by the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI).

With a slow-moving federal government and a patchwork of local laws regulating autonomous truck testing, that future for the technology is far from seamless, according to ATRI.

The government rules created to support autonomous truck development are often too prescriptive to generate meaningful outcomes, according to the research. For example, multiple vendors highlight Level 4 testing, despite regulations that require constant control of the vehicles by both drivers and onboard engineers — making it difficult for motor carrier executives to assess the real value of autonomous trucks accurately.

The week before ATRI released its research paper, Redefining the Role of Government Activities in Automated Trucking, U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao was at CES 2020 in Las Vegas to unveil the fourth version of of the DOT’s automated vehicle vision.

“We see in the displays at CES, on America’s roads and in our skies such exciting transportation advancements that are occurring,” Chao said during a keynote address at the Las Vegas Convention Center. “Transportation today is synonymous with innovation. And transportation is going to be instrumental in America’s future, as it has been, since our nation’s founding. And at the U.S. Department of Transportation, we are preparing for the transportation system of the future. And all of this speaks to our preparations for the future transportation system that will make all of our lives easier, more enjoyable, and increase the standard of living for everyone.”

“The pace of technology development in the autonomous truck sphere is moving at lightning speed,” said Jeff Reed, president of Skyline Transportation and chairman of the ATA Automated Truck Subcommittee. “Our industry needs states to collaborate on seamless policies and regulations, and we need more proactive federal guidance on (autonomous truck) development. Government activities at all levels must be dynamic enough to address the constantly evolving technology landscape.”

ATRI notes the “potential safety and economic benefits of adopting AV and cooperative operation technologies in the trucking industry are substantial.” But because federal and state policymakers “have struggled to keep pace with the development of these technologies,” the U.S. has a fragmented and incomplete ecosystem for developing, testing, and deploying self-driving trucks.

This splintered system “has likely hindered the development and adoption of AV and ADAS technologies in the trucking industry,” according to ATRI.

The DOT’s “hands-off approach” to AV testing has contributed to this piecemeal approach across the country, ATRI research contends. This could be a reason why there has not been much autonomous long-haul freight testing.

ATRI concludes the report by noting that there remain unaddressed policy questions “that are likely to delay the adoption of these transformative technologies in the trucking industry.”

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