By Finch Fulton, Vice President of Policy and Strategy at Locomation and
former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy at the US Department of Transportation
Developments in autonomous trucking regulations are so new that partisan lines have yet to harden. The benefits around safer, more efficient and more economically viable operations are clearly understood to be widespread, and policy makers are eager to bring those future benefits into the present. While recent USDOT reports show that if you are a truck driver today you are unlikely to lose your job because of automation, there are still different approaches to how to use this opportunity to shape the future of transportation.
For starters, autonomous vehicle provisions that could be included in a bill would provide certainty around the USDOT’s ongoing efforts to update Federal standards for automated cars and autonomous trucks. The USDOT initiated these rulemakings and sought to ensure they were in line with Congressional intent, but only Congress can set timelines and give the industry the certainty it needs to continue their massive multi-year investments. The bill would also unify the nation around one set of (still developing) Federal standards for AV deployments.
There are also a few provisions that would give the USDOT more authority to issue a higher number of exemptions, or approvals, for vehicles that are being created without the expectation that a human will be in control. More flexibility will allow more vehicle types and business models to be tested, while still maintaining USDOT’s strict control over the testing until standards can be put in place. What’s the benefit of these tests? Higher numbers and varieties of tests gives the USDOT more information to set the safety standards of the future—ultimately accelerating the safety, efficiency and economic benefits for Americans.
Perhaps just as important to autonomous trucking is the next infrastructure or Surface Transportation Reauthorization bill, which could be taken up as a part of a stimulus bill, but otherwise should be taken up before September.
The question “what changes do we need to make to the infrastructure to prepare for automated trucks” is often asked, and the answer is rather straightforward: Autonomous trucks need the same things to drive safely that humans do: good roads, visible signage and clear lane stripes. These are the same things truck drivers need today.
Increased investment, with prioritization around “fixing it first”, will go a long way to preparing the road for autonomous trucks. But, we have a chance to use infrastructure investments to address other growing issues while preparing for the future. How?
Digital Infrastructure And Truck Parking
In addition to the increased investment in our nation’s public works, there is a need for an infrastructure bill to address truck parking. There is a severe nationwide shortage of parking spots for truckers, resulting in many drivers parking illegally or exceeding their hours of service to find a safe place to park.
Why is truck parking such a critical issue? Consider this:
- There are nearly 2 million truck drivers operating in the US
- The American Trucking Associations estimates that there is a shortage of roughly 60 thousand drivers today, and that number is expected to grow
- Truck drivers sat in traffic for nearly 1.2 billion hours in 2016, equivalent to more than 425,000 drivers sitting idle for a year
- More than 75% of truck drivers “regularly” experience “problems with finding safe parking locations when they need to stop
- Truck drivers lose 56 minutes a day searching for parking.
- Traffic delays costs U.S. businesses more than $74 billion each year in wasted fuel and lost truck driver wages, costing each truck on the highway an average of $6,478 throughout the year
These frustrations, costs and limits to productivity, are part of the reason 10.5% of truck drivers retire or leave the sector every year. Adding more parking spots for trucks, and making it easier for truckers to find them, would help solve this problem (as well as improving congestion and lowering emissions).
How Does This Relate To Autonomous Trucking?
These stops could also serve as multipurpose freight hubs. Given that truck drivers do much more than just drive the truck, these hubs could be a planned stopping point for human-guided convoys to switch loads, perform inspections and could even support refueling and electrification efforts—something FHWA acting Administrator Stephanie Pollack called for this week. The hubs would be a boon to local economies, supporting local jobs, and would help make it possible for truckers to return home every night.
They could also be equipped with digital parking infrastructure—no more complicated than what you may see at airport parking—so that truckers can know in advance how many spots are open. This is a logical extension of a unique BUILD grant provided for an 8-state truck parking program, combined with the innovative Work Zone Data Exchange program. This program has leading states like Pennsylvania moving from, literally, updates via fax machine to instant, routine, digital updates for work zones that are incorporated into common mapping apps. We should build on existing efforts to digitize this infrastructure in places like Arizona and Texas so truckers can instantly pull up parking info on their phone.
This doesn’t have to be a top-down, government effort. In fact, it probably shouldn’t be. Nationwide, the private sector provides 90 percent of parking capacity for commercial trucks. A study found that in the 13 states where government-funded commercial rest areas compete with private parking options, nearly 70 percent fewer truck parking spaces exist.
We’ve seen in the transit sector how private sector innovators can quickly surpass government efforts. It took Google five months and simple excel files to figure out how to bring bus and transit routes to Google Maps, something the Federal Transit Agency had spent many years trying to accomplish.
Combined, these efforts would improve safety for all roadway users, reduce congestion and emissions by giving truckers certainty, and would support business models that improve the quality of life for truckers. Congress can make this happen in the next infrastructure bill.