Government collaboration required on automated trucks

ORLANDO, Fla. – State and federal governments must work together to ensure consistency in developing a regulatory framework for automated vehicles.

That was the message from Kirk Steudle, director of the Michigan Department of Transportation, who was speaking on a panel about automated trucks at the American Trucking Associations’ annual Management Conference & Exhibition.

“It’s a big deal, what the federal government role is and what the state governments’ role is,” he said. “It’s true, we do our own thing, but we also collaborate together.”

Michigan is one of the states that is most advanced in allowing automated vehicles. It, along with Florida, are the only two states that allow completely autonomous operation of any car without a special licence or plate, anytime and anywhere.

The federal responsibilities, explained Steudle, are to set vehicle standards, safety standards, and to educate the public. State governments are responsible for the licensing of vehicles and drivers, and enacting and enforcing traffic laws. Insurance and liability are also state concerns.

Some states are working together through the Vehicle to Infrastructure Deployment Coalition, to set standards on how vehicles communicate with infrastructure. Through this effort, a standard electronic signal that will be emitted by traffic signals has been created.

“How do you have the traffic signal speak in a language that vehicles on the road can understand?” Steudle said of the challenge. All states have been asked to instrument 25 intersections for infrastructure to vehicle communications within the next five years.

“It’s moving forward quickly,” he said.

Utah is also looking to position itself as a leader in autonomous vehicles. It has installed a fiber optic network underneath 2,200 miles of highway. It is also testing truck platooning and has developed 30 intersections with transit signal priority, meaning transit buses will always receive a green light.

Michigan itself has passed four laws since December 2016 to allow automated vehicles. The first allows for their operation – including driverless Uber-type car services. Michigan also developed a 330-acre facility for testing autonomous vehicles. The state also allows truck platooning.

However, Steudle noted the state is taking a cautious approach to allowing fully autonomous trucks.

“From our interaction with the general public, people get freaked out with an autonomous car,” he said. “They’re driving down the street and it gets people nervous. With an automated shuttle, many people in the public were saying ‘I’m not getting in that thing.’ So, from a legal perspective we said ‘Let’s take a measured approach here and let’s move into this easily,’ knowing there’s a lot of technology going on inside commercial trucks. Let’s let that continue to develop but let’s not freak the public out.”

Steudle said truck platooning is a nice public introduction to the potential for autonomous trucking.

“Our law eliminated the following distance (rules) if the trucks are platooning,” he said, adding a carrier will be platooning in Michigan soon. In one platooning test, military trucks crossed the Port Huron bridge into Canada in platoon formation before returning. Steudle said Michigan works very closely with Ontario on its automated vehicle strategy.

Dr. Ben Sawyer, a researcher with MIT, has specialized in studying human/machine interactions and integration, and says much work still must be accomplished to ensure the safety of autonomous vehicles.

“Increasingly, humans and machines are more tightly coupled than they’ve ever been,” he said. “For those of you who are convinced autonomy is not really coming, you’re wrong, it’ll be here very soon. For those of you who think problems will be solved by full autonomy and everyone will be hands off the wheel, you’re also very likely wrong. And between these two states lies the messiest interaction possible.”

Darryl Oster, Peterbilt’s assistant chief engineer, gave an overview of advanced driver assist systems (ADAS) that are currently available, and those that will be coming to the industry. In the near- and longer-term, the industry will see technologies such as: torque overlay steering, traffic jam assist, lane keeping assist, platooning, and autonomous driving on closed courses, on the highway and in urban environments.

The top concerns of truck manufacturers, Oster said, are: regulatory issues; safety standards; infrastructure development; and liability and insurance issues. He also said the driver experience and interface with the vehicle will have to change, with more information pertaining to ADAS integrated into driver displays and more real-time feedback given to the driver, including information on the vehicle’s operating status and health.


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James Menzies is editor of Today's Trucking. He has been covering the Canadian trucking industry for more than 20 years and holds a CDL. Reach him at or follow him on Twitter at @JamesMenzies.

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