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Self-Driving Semis Get Boost in U.S. Autonomous Vehicle Policy

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Self-Driving Semis Get Boost in U.S. Autonomous Vehicle Policy

  • Truck regulator will regard technology as ‘driver’ under rules
  • Shift is part of DOT’s bid to remove barriers to automation
Race To Build Self-Driving Cars Accelerates

The U.S. Transportation Department has given a boost to companies working on automated long-haul trucks, saying an artificial intelligence system could constitute a “driver” under federal trucking rules in a bid to ease barriers to the technology.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration will no longer assume that a commercial vehicle driver is human, according to the Transportation Department’s “Automated Vehicles 3.0” guidance released Thursday. That is an initial step to allow trucks to travel across state lines piloted by an autonomous driving system. The safety regulator also signaled a willingness to overrule states standing in the way of self-driving trucks and is also studying how to amend existing rules to better accommodate self-driving systems.

Long-haul trucking, with its hours of cruising in relatively simple highway environments, is is seen as a key opportunity to deploy automated driving technologies. Major truck manufacturers such as Daimler AG and Paccar Inc. are working on automated driving systems for commercial trucks. The field has also attracted several startups, such as Intel Corp.-backed Peloton Technology Inc., which has created technology to help automated trucks safely travel in tight platoons.

Related: Uber Self-Driving Truck Loads Up on Budweiser for First Delivery

At an event announcing the new policy, FMCSA Administrator Ray Martinez said automated trucking technologies have the potential to save thousands of lives and benefit the economy.

“The FMCSA is dedicated to supporting the creativity and innovation required to promote automated driving system, including the reform of regulations that may unnecessarily hinder progress,” Martinez said.

In a 2016 test by Uber Technologies Inc.’s Otto unit and Anheuser-Busch InBev Nv, an 18-wheeler with nobody behind the wheel cruised more than 120 miles to deliver a load of beer. At the time, AB InBev said it could save $50 million a year in the U.S. if the beverage giant could deploy autonomous trucks across its distribution network.

The trucking industry’s main trade association praised the updated policy. “This is a sound and substantive framework that rightly recognizes commercial vehicles are essential to any serious AV policy,” Chris Spear, president of the American Trucking Associations, said in a statement.

The Center for Auto Safety, an advocacy group in Washington, criticized the department’s update as a move away from oversight of self-driving technologies and as too deferential to industry.

“Despite deaths, injuries, and crashes involving a variety of semi-autonomous and autonomous vehicle technology across the country, DOT continues to insist that eliminating regulation is the way to achieve safety,” Jason Levine, the group’s executive director, said in a statement. “The potential for safety advancements or deadly disasters presented by autonomous vehicle technology is huge. Unfortunately, once again, NHTSA is coming up small.”

The policy allows the department to overrule state or local requirements that interfere with federal trucking regulations, addressing a concern of the trucking industry: that state and local automated vehicle rules may prohibit self-driving big-rigs from crossing state lines, a fact of life in long-haul trucking.

The FMSCA’s new interpretation follows a similar move by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 2016, when it told Google officials the agency would view the company’s autonomous technology as a driver under federal auto-safety standards.

Other surface transportation agencies within the Transportation Department will adopt a similar stance as part of the third iteration of the department’s automated-vehicle policy guidance. The update for the first time addresses automation in all modes of surface transportation, including long-haul trucks, transit and rail, in addition to passenger vehicles covered by previous documents.

— With assistance by Shaun Courtney

(Adds trucking, safety groups’ comments beginning in the seventh paragraph.)