Among the most common concerns at FMCSA's Autonomous Vehicle Listening Session were questions about changes to the Hours of Service rules and how actively engaged drivers should be while a truck is in autonomous driving mode. Photo: Jack Roberts

Among the most common concerns at FMCSA's Autonomous Vehicle Listening Session were questions about changes to the Hours of Service rules and how actively engaged drivers should be while a truck is in autonomous driving modePhoto: Jack Roberts

ATLANTA — A listening session held in Atlanta on April 24 by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration on autonomous commercial vehicles attracted a host of people from across the transportation industry,  many of whom expressed concerns about the impact this emerging technology will have on the health and role of truck drivers.

The agency is looking to craft regulations around autonomous vehicles that reflect real-world operating conditions for trucks, noted Daphne Jefferson, FMCSA deputy administrator. “Our goal," she added, "is not to impede progress, but for us as regulators to try to run alongside development as it moves forward.”

The listening session was held at a Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance workshop and it drew public comments from law enforcement officers, truck drivers, fleet executives, OEM representatives, and new technology developers, such as Uber.

Time after time, the comments or questions asked centered on the human element of autonomous driving technology and how the industry will deal with changes in that area.

Among the most common concerns were questions about changes to the Hours of Service rules and how actively engaged drivers should be while a truck is in autonomous driving mode – and if it were even possible for drivers to stay properly attentive with nothing to do other than keep an eye on events as a truck guides itself down the highway.

Other notable concerns addressed included redundant safety features and resistance to hacking or computer viruses as well as roadside inspection questions.

Danny Hefner, director of safety and recruiting for MCO Transport in Wilmington, N.C.,  urged FMSCA to “slow down” on autonomous trucks, based on several concerns he has. “What if a steer tire blows,” he asked the FMCSA panel. “Is that truck going to be able to maintain a lane in that event? Next, we know this equipment will have all sorts of computer interfacing: satellites, GPS, all sorts of things?  Homeland Security needs to take a close look at this. One hacking could take down an important component of our national infrastructure. And what about maintaining these systems? We have our own technicians who are the greatest in the world. But as a person out there in the motoring public, can I trust the average technician out there to work on these systems?”

Tom Foster, a captain in the Washington state highway patrol and commander of the agency’s Commercial Vehicle Division, echoed Hefner’s comments, saying, “What if a retread comes off a trailer and damages a car behind it? I have some real concerns about not having a driver in the seat who is monitoring what’s going on. And if we get to the point where a driver is asleep, or at Level 5 where there is no driver at all, what do I have to do as a law enforcement officer to stop that vehicle? Or what does a citizen do if they want to pull the truck over because that blown tire broke their windshield? Do we have to wait for it to arrive at its destination before we can make contact? How do we interact with that vehicle as law enforcement officers?”

Uber’s Ognen Stojanovski is part of the team heading up the company’s recently acquired Otto division, which is developing autonomous driving retrofit systems for Class 8 trucks. He countered many concerns raised during the session when he noted that changes to existing training or safety regulations are unnecessary if someone is required in the driver’s seat when in autonomous mode.

Stojanovski said that as with conventional commercial vehicles, drivers operating a HACV (Highly Automated Commercial Vehicle) should, among other things, obtain a commercial driver’s license, satisfy all medical clearances criteria and background checks, avoid improper smartphone use while driving, log their hours of service correct and ensure that the vehicle has been properly inspected, repaired and maintained.

He said operators required to be behind the steering wheel of an HACV must be responsible for properly controlling the truck, monitoring the surrounding environment and safely using any onboard technologies — just like all drivers. "Existing regulatory measures already ensure drivers are trained and qualified to carry out these tasks. Indeed, we are already seeing safety benefits from this technology which require a driver to be engaged and attentive 100% of the time.”

Building on that theme, Stojanovski also said Uber feels it would be “highly beneficial” for FMCSA to recognize the fundamental distinction between highly automated trucks that require a driver behind the wheel, which are commonly described as advanced driving assistance systems, and those that do not require any human engagement, often labeled autonomous vehicles.

The entire listening session can be accessed here.

FCMSA will continue accepting public comments on autonomous commercial vehicles on its website until July 17, 2017.

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