In a hotel ballroom in Atlanta today, Danny Hefner stood before a panel of the nation's top motor carrier safety officials to express concern about the possible deployment of highly automated commercial vehicles.
Last October's 120-mile beer run of a self-driving Otto truck for brewery titan Anheuser-Busch InBev "as a citizen, put me off," Hefner said. Noting the driver was in the sleeper cab for the entire trip, Hefner wondered what would happen, in a similar scenario, if a self-driving truck suffered equipment failure such as a blown tire? Would the system be properly designed and programmed to adjust to a crisis with no human available to take the wheel to make a split-second decision, he asked?
Hefner also worried about the potential of cyber-terrorists hacking into an interconnected network to override the computer and telematics systems of 80,000-pound trucks motoring through traffic at 60 miles per hour. Besides the obvious risk to life and limb, Hefner said a single hack could wreak havoc with a large chunk of the nation's road infrastructure.
Hefner is no layperson. He is the safety director of MCO Transport Inc., a truckload, drayage and specialized carrier and warehouse concern based in Wilmington, N.C. He has also been a commercial driver, logging 1.3 million miles behind the wheel.
Hefner's comments underscore the daunting task facing federal and state safety officials as they start down what promises to be a long and winding road to balance technology, commercial, and safety issues stemming from the development of driverless commercial vehicles. The panel, which included Daphne Jefferson, deputy administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administrator (FMCSA); Jack Van Steenburg, FMCSA's assistant administrator and chief safety officer; and Larry W. Minor, the agency's associate administrator for policy, were in listen-only mode, acknowledging they are climbing the same learning curve as the operators they regulate.
"We are not here to impede progress," Jefferson told those in attendance and others viewing the proceedings via a webcast, "But to (proceed) alongside the development as it moves forward."
The government has created five levels of vehicle autonomy, ranging from "Level 0," where no operational functions are automated, to "Level 4," where the driver directs the vehicle where to go, and then relinquishes control. At that level, vehicles can be operated unoccupied, perform all safety-critical driving functions, and continuously monitor roadway conditions. For the foreseeable future, Level 3 appears to be the most realistic objective for industry and regulators to focus on. At that level, drivers can, at their discretion, turn over control of all safety-critical functions under certain traffic or environmental conditions. However, drivers are expected to remain in the vehicle and to be ready to take over its operation if necessary.
Among the issues raised at the FMCSA "listening session" were who would be liable in the event of an accident involving an autonomous vehicle; how to combat driver boredom and ensure alertness during what could be long hours of inactivity in the passenger seat or in the sleeper area; and whether federal regulations that set limitations on a driver's hours of service should be modified to account for drivers not being behind the wheel for extended periods.
Richard Bishop, a former official at the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), and head of a Baltimore-based consultancy bearing his name, said there would be greater private-sector IT investment at Level 3 compliance if hours-of-service rules were adjusted.
Bishop, whose firm is working on a driverless-car study for the state of Florida, told the panel there is a "huge amount that's common" in the development and implementation of autonomous car and truck technologies. Because of the body of research already available in studying driverless automotive technology, the "FMCSA need not go it alone," he said.
Another factor is whether an expected proliferation of conversion to autonomous trucks would make driver recruitment efforts more difficult than they already are. On one hand, younger, IT savvy folks who might not have given a thought to truck driving as a career might now be drawn to an industry where technology is suddenly top of mind.
On the other, interest in the field may be further stifled if the perception holds that technology will eliminate human involvement, leaving people bored and with nothing to do. Indeed, if the long-term objective is for the vehicle to operate itself, why does a driver even need to be in it?
Angelo Gibson, associate vice president of operations at Omaha-based truckload and logistics giant Werner Enterprises Inc., said present-day driver recruitment challenges are likely to persist for the next five years, regardless of whether autonomous trucks are on the road or not.