Here’s an exercise in future think: You know what can happen now at a roadside inspection of one of your trucks. But what might happen in the perhaps-not-so-distant future at one of those routine occurrences when your truck is highly or fully automated? And how might a truly “driverless” truck be inspected at an accident scene?
To game this out, the HDT Talks Trucking podcast got on the line with Will Schaefer, director of safety programs for the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance. He knows whereof he speaks: Before joining CVSA in 2010, Schaefer worked as a federal regulatory research engineer at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; as technical policy representative at the American Trucking Associations and at the Truck Manufacturers Association, and as consultant to the Department of Energy.
Asked for his thoughts on how CVSA and the overall enforcement community is viewing the advent of highly automated and eventually fully automated (aka autonomous or “driverless”) trucks, Schaefer told HDT Talks Trucking that “it’s a very fluid discussion. We established some recommendations for policy at the end of 2019. They're evolving. So, what we recommend might be a little different in the near future.
“In general,” he continued, “we break it down this way: There’s automation in the lower SAE levels where you still have a driver and the vehicle might be able to do certain things by itself, but not everything for extended periods. Then there are SAE automation levels four and five, where you could in theory remove the driver altogether from needing to be in the cab to drive the vehicle.”
Future of Truck Pre-Trip Inspections
Schaefer said that, especially once in the higher SAE levels, “we have an idea that there'll be some kind of enhanced pre-trip inspection, and then a remote screening or remote verification [attesting] that the vehicle was inspected at the beginning of its trip. That’s what we currently are thinking.”
He added that what may develop for automated trucks is “an enhanced pre trip slot, you know, somewhat above and beyond what we currently do for a pre-trip. One element we have suggested is that there be a diagnostic [system] that would need to be at least documented and available as the truck is passing a waystation or at a location where an inspection would typically occur for any non-automated vehicle.
“That truck could broadcast [that data] or electronically communicate it somehow. We know that there are technologies that can be used for communication to an officer at a weigh station, showing that this vehicle has gone through a pre-trip inspection; it currently has good status on XYZ, whatever those things are. And then there could be a credit to that company's, safety management score for the jurisdiction. But what we're most interested in is verifying that the vehicle is in good working order.”
Schaefer discussed a range of other topics touching on automated trucks. These include what lessons may have been learned from several recent accidents and incidents that involved autonomous vehicle operators that resulted in citations, including of all things, hours-of-service violations.
He also talked about the fluid state of safety legislation and rulemaking around autonomous vehicles and highway safety. Among other concerns he delved into is the devilish question of just how will roadside enforcement officers interact with a truck that has nobody behind the wheel to take instruction or answer questions?