Federal Regulators Tout Autonomous Technology in Policy Update

Daimler Future Truck

An “operator” in Daimler’s Future Truck. DOT officials reaffirmed their commitment to such technologies. (Daimler AG)

U.S. Department of Transportation leaders reaffirmed their commitment to ensure the adoption and implementation of automated technologies across transportation modes, the agency indicated in a new policy document.

“As new automated technologies are rapidly advancing, they carry with them the potential to dramatically change commercial transportation and private travel, expanding access for millions and improving safety on our roads, rails and in our skies,” regulators with the office of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao outlined in the department’s semi-annual summary of its regulatory agenda.

“We will remain vigilant for opportunities where regulatory action can help strengthen and modernize our infrastructure,” the regulators added. The document was released Aug. 24.

As early as this fall, DOT intends to announce an update of guidelines for industries, manufacturers and government agencies on automated technology, the secretary indicated earlier this summer.

As new automated technologies are rapidly advancing, they carry with them the potential to dramatically change commercial transportation and private travel.

The updated guidelines to the department’s Federal Automated Vehicles Policy are expected to encompass heavy-duty commercial vehicles such as trucks and buses, officials at the agency have said. The current policy principles on automated technology were unveiled in September 2016 by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. They pertain primarily to cars and have little to say about trucks.

As a way of kicking off the national conversation for more robust policy on autonomous technology, DOT convened a meeting of the Federal Committee on Automation in January. The initial meeting allowed members an introductory forum. The committee has not met under the Trump administration. Members include General Motors, FedEx Corp., National Safety Council, Lyft, Waymo, American Trucking Associations and Apple.

On Capitol Hill, policymakers are not waiting on DOT for its guidance. A House committee this summer easily approved legislation that would expand the testing and deployment of self-driving vehicles. The legislation, which is expected to reach the chamber’s floor this fall, would prohibit states from establishing policies that would regulate communication software and require manufacturers to come up with cybersecurity plans for self-driving vehicles.

“The core of this self-driving legislation underscores our intention to reaffirm the roles and responsibilities of federal and state governments, update federal motor safety rules, and enhance public safety through testing and deployment of self-driving vehicles and technologies,” said Bob Latta (R-Ohio), chairman of the Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection Subcommittee.

Senators on the Commerce Committee will take up similar legislation in September, the chairman, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), told reporters before the congressional August recess.

Aside from policy directives for manufacturers, cities and states would need guidance governing smart infrastructure to ensure there is nationwide uniformity on the communication performance of self-driving vehicles.

The advancements in self-driving trucks have been dominating the industry’s attention. Last year, a self-driving truck developed by Otto, a subsidiary of Uber Technologies Inc., hauled Budweiser beer on Interstate 25 in Colorado. Prior to that, a semi-autonomous truck, also from Otto, performed a similar task in Ohio. The Office of Economic Development in Nevada operates the Center for Advanced Mobility to develop and deploy autonomous policy, standards and technology.

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