Who needs a driver?

LAS VEGAS, Nev. – American Trucking Associations (ATA) president Chris Spear said before the idea of automated vehicles is dismissed or embraced, there has to be a dialogue and, most importantly, the ATA must have a seat at the table.

“You have to have communication and work with your regulatory agencies to really understand what the framework is going to look like,” said Spear. “This technology is here, it’s going to grow rapidly and it’s going to take shape. Doing it jointly with our partners in the passenger-vehicle world is ideal. I would rather do that and generate something that has a measurable return on investment for our members than to receive a regulatory framework that we had no hand in designing.”

Speaking to a group of reporters following the keynote address during a luncheon at the ATA Management Conference and Exhibition Oct. 2 in that addressed the push toward driverless vehicles, Spear said collaborating and sharing information with other industries should be done in a way that it does not stymie innovation.

“As an industry, we need to embrace technologies that have good, defined ROIs (return on investments),” Spear said, “and I think there are several within that package of autonomous vehicle technology that could be beneficial.”

Highlighting the diversity of technology companies taking part in the Las Vegas conference, Spear said although trucking was a different animal than the auto sector, there remains a great deal of overlap that connects the two.

“It has a lot different framework that I think the technology companies are interested in tapping into and helping to find what the return on investment for that technology is going to be,” Spear said, with regards to the use of autonomous technologies on trucks.

John Bozzella, president and CEO of Global Automakers, presented the speech on autonomous vehicles, saying much of the uncertainty around the technology is due to a lack of public policy and that the next step in the process needs to be ‘political engineering.’

“Uncertainty about a range of public policy issues of connected and automated vehicles threatens to slow or even kill the technology,” Bozzella said.

Bozzella urged fleet executives in attendance to get the word out about autonomous vehicles in an effort to shed the skepticism that surrounds it.

“We’re on the verge of deploying technologies and employing applications that could fundamentally change how we move people and goods,” Bozzella said, adding that the city of Pittsburgh was embracing driverless vehicles, while Chicago was doing the opposite, and considering banning the practice.

Bozzella added with autonomous vehicles, like any new type of technology, the focus is often placed on the worst possible outcomes, saying that can be a bad thing if it has a negative impact on public policy. He cited an incident with a Tesla vehicle in Florida, which was operating on autopilot when it crashed into a tractor trailer killing its passenger, as an example.

“Automated vehicle technology, supported by vehicle connectivity will save us all a lot of time, a lot of money and a lot of heartbreak,” said Bozzella. “Because after all we’ve done to make our cars and trucks safer than ever, last year, over 35,000 Americans lost their lives on our roads and highways.”

Bozzella cited research indicating that 94% of collisions on US roadways are caused by driver error. He also said in collisions involving cars and trucks, actions by the passenger vehicle is more often than not the ‘critical reason for the crash.’

With several trucking companies, like Bozzella’s former employer Daimler, working on automated technologies, the challenge that lies ahead will be redefining the role of the driver, particularly when it comes to liability, privacy and data collection.

Bozzella was a strong believer in vehicle-to-vehicle communication, saying it would dramatically improve automotive safety, and said many new technologies are about to hit our roadways soon.

Despite questions about whether driverless vehicles will help the elderly and disabled and be the answer to distracted, drowsy and drunk driving, or if they will take away jobs and be hurtful to people due to bad programing or by way of a cyber attack, Spear said the ATA would be organizing and resourcing its capabilities to make sure it has answers for its members on where automated technology is headed, good and bad.

“Step one is taking that seat at the table,” stressed Spear, “then we will be able to determine what’s good and bad and where we need to be as an industry going forward.”

ATA president Chris Spear.
ATA president Chris Spear.
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A university graduate with a degree in English, I have worked in the media and trucking industries as a writer, editor, and now as western bureau chief of Today's Trucking and TruckNews.com. I have several years of management experience in journalism, as well as hospitality, but am first and foremost a writer, both professionally and in my personal life, having completed two fiction novels.

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