Congress Gears Up for Debate Over Automated Trucks, Workforce Impacts

December 8, 2017 

Even as Congress tries to wrap up its work on the nation’s first laws for automated vehicles (AVs), the House is starting to discuss legislation for automated commercial vehicles like trucks and buses.

The two major AV bills before Congress right now, the SELF DRIVE Act (H.R. 3388) and AV START (S. 1885), have enjoyed wide bipartisan support while working their way through their respective chambers. Both bills are written to create a regulatory structure for automating passenger vehicles like those being developed by Waymo and Uber.

Seemingly every Member and Senator has found reasons to support the automation of passenger vehicles based on their political views and priorities.

Rep. Bob Latta (R-OH), who chairs the subcommittee that wrote the SELF DRIVE Act, touts AVs’ benefits for safety and international competitiveness.

Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) views AVs as an opportunity to spur private sector innovation and support the auto industry in his home state.

Rep. Gregg Harper (R-MS) hopes that AVs could grant independence and mobility to his son with disabilities who cannot drive himself.

But the biggest, thorniest issue – the place where partisanship always rears its head and each side digs in – is not automated passenger vehicles, but the automation of commercial motor vehicles (CMVs).

On December 7, the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee’s Subcommittee on Highways and Transit held a roundtable to discuss emerging technologies in the trucking industry, with a particular focus on automated driving systems. The subcommittee invited the following participants to lend their insights:

  • Greer Woodruff, Senior Vice President of Safety, Security, and Driver Personnel, J.B. Hunt, on behalf of the American Trucking Associations
  • Susan Alt, Senior Vice President of Public Affairs, Volvo Group North America
  • Jane Terry, Senior Director, Government Affairs, National Safety Council
  • Larry Willis, President, Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO

The roundtable was dominated by discussions of the workforce impacts and policy needs for automated trucks, with a few short divergences into connected vehicles and the mandate for truckers to use electronic logging devices (ELD). In many ways, it echoed a similar hearing held by Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee’s in September.

In an effort spearheaded by the AFL-CIO, Democrats and labor unions have raised alarm all year about the potential displacement of truck and bus drivers by automated driving systems – so much so that CMVs were excluded from both the SELF DRIVE Act and AV START.

“We don’t think our economy is prepared to absorb job displacement and downward pressure on wages,” Willis told the subcommittee.

Indeed, the social and economic consequences of displacing the legion of professional drivers could be massive. Whereas globalization has moved many factories overseas and automation has reduced the number of workers in some of those factories that remain, trucking has been immune to the impacts of both economic trends.

However, trucking is not immune to demographic and social trends. The average age of truck drivers has hovered around 50 in recent years and there is a noticeable lack of qualified drivers to replace those who are retiring. Alt noted that this is partially because trucking is a “rough job” that needs to be “made cooler” to younger drivers by introducing technologies that improve the driver experience and reduce the physical and mental strains on drivers.

According to American Trucking Associations (ATA), over 3.5 million truck drivers move over 70 percent of the freight tonnage in the U.S. And a 2015 NPR report that analyzed Census Bureau data found that the most common job in 29 states is truck/delivery driver. (It is worth noting that the Census Bureau uses a rather clunky method to categorize professions – as one critic pointed out, its approach is much too broad and often lends itself to problematic analyses.)

(Source: MarketWatch via NPR)

These statistics might seem to foretell an impending economic catastrophe at first glance. But some experts have suggested that these concerns may be overblown. The job descriptions of truck drivers extend well beyond simply driving, as they are also responsible for scheduling and conducting deliveries, maintaining vehicles, ensuring the security of their cargo, and – in many cases – running their own small trucking businesses.

Moreover, the implementation of automated technologies in trucks will likely be a gradual process that is slowed by the lifecycle of commercial vehicles (typically a dozen years or more) and the incremental progress being made in the technology itself. It will likely take decades before companies are able to use fully autonomous trucks in just half of their fleets.

And if the resistance to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s (FMCSA) ELD mandate is any indication, the implementation of autonomous trucks could also move at a snail’s pace. During the roundtable, Rep. Bruce Babin (R-TX) reiterated his concerns about truckers being required to use electronic devices to log their miles and hours driven by hand instead of paper forms. The witnesses largely disagreed with his opposition to the mandate, yet the fact remains that there are major constituencies that generate friction against implementing some new technologies.

But as Eno recommended in two recent reports on federal and state AV policies, policymakers can seize this moment to proactively research and prepare for the potential displacement of human drivers.

Coincidentally, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) gave a teaser of a new initiative during the roundtable to address the potential impacts of automation on truck drivers. She said that she is working on legislation with the AFL-CIO and other stakeholders that is intended to support job-retraining programs and prepare for long-term economic trends that could displace workers.

“I think getting out in front of this is the right answer,” Willis said, noting that job-retraining programs historically have not performed as well as labor unions had hoped.

The issue of vehicle connectivity, which is seen by many as a complementary technology for AVs, also came up near the end of the hearing. Following reports that USDOT is reevaluating its proposed mandate for vehicles to be equipped with vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) technology, safety advocates and industry leaders have expressed concerns that the lack of a mandate would prevent the nation from realizing the safety benefits of V2V.

Alt argued that Volvo and other truck manufacturers have made significant investments in V2V technology that leverages dedicated short-range communications (DSRC). DSRC operates on a spectrum band that was set aside for automotive applications nearly two decades ago, but the telecommunications industry has placed increasing pressure on Congress and the Administration to allow it to be freed up for cellular applications instead.

DSRC is critical for truck platooning and the operation of automated trucks, Alt said, and the loss of this spectrum could jeopardize the efficiency and safety of trucks well into the future.


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