Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously approved a bill meant to make it easier for self-driving cars to get on the road — and to block states from restricting them. The bill is now before the Senate Commerce Committee, and the trucking industry has urged lawmakers to include autonomous commercial trucks in the legislation.
Currently, the proposal only applies to motor vehicles weighing less than 10,000 pounds, but a Senate proposal could add large commercial trucks.
“It’s important for industry to participate in the creation of advanced driving technologies now,” the head of the truck manufacturer Navistar testified before the committee. “Providing clarity on the legislative and regulatory front will allow us, truck manufacturers, to design and validate systems that meet the future needs of our customers.”
The head of the industry group American Trucking Associations added that it was “critical” for federal policy to include from the beginning all vehicles that could become autonomous.
The International Brotherhood of Teamsters opposes adding trucks to the autonomous car bill. The union cited concerns about safety as well as the impact on driving jobs. Representatives from the auto industry have said self-driving trucks could replace an estimated 3 million commercial trucking jobs.
The Teamsters’ general secretary warned that big rig trucks operate differently than passenger vehicles — and that missteps in automation would create much more damage than they would if they only involved cars. The sheer size and weight of an 18-wheeler means that truck accidents typically involve greater damage and more serious injuries than most accidents involving passenger cars. Some of that risk applies to the truck driver as well as the occupants of the other vehicle.
“It is essential that American workers are not treated as guinea pigs for unproven technologies that could put their lives at risk,” said the general secretary in testimony before the committee.
The argument for self-driving cars is relatively straightforward. If, as proponents claim, 94 percent of all car wrecks in the U.S. are caused by driver error, a computerized driver could dramatically reduce the number of traffic fatalities each year — now at about 35,000.
Tesla, Waymo (Google) and Uber Technologies are all currently working on putting autonomous commercial trucks on the road.