Senators wrestle with including trucks in driverless car bill

Senators wrestle with including trucks in driverless car bill
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Senators are wrestling with whether to include trucks in a congressional effort to speed up the deployment of self-driving vehicles.

The issue has been holding up the final release of Senate legislation to enhance driverless vehicles, with Sens. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneAviation panel recommends Trump roll back safety rules Overnight Regulation: House moves to block methane rule | Senators wrestle with allowing driverless trucks | EPA delays toxic waste rule Overnight Tech: Senate looks at self-driving trucks | Facebook to keep ads off fake news | House panel calls Equifax CEO to testify MORE (R-S.D.), Gary PetersGary Charles PetersOvernight Regulation: House moves to block methane rule | Senators wrestle with allowing driverless trucks | EPA delays toxic waste rule Overnight Tech: Senate looks at self-driving trucks | Facebook to keep ads off fake news | House panel calls Equifax CEO to testify Senators wrestle with including trucks in driverless car bill MORE (D-Mich.) and Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonDem asks airlines to cap airfares ahead of Hurricane Maria Trump encourages Rick Scott to run for Senate Overnight Regulation: House moves to block methane rule | Senators wrestle with allowing driverless trucks | EPA delays toxic waste rule MORE (D-Fla.) instead releasing a discussion draft last week that still has major gaps that need to be filled in.

Trucking is one of the primary industries that is expected to be largely transformed by automated vehicles, with companies like Uber already jumping into the long-haul driverless trucking space.

But there has been widespread concern that the emerging technology could threaten millions of trucking jobs around the country.

“Trucks are different than automobiles. One of those differences deals with the employment,” Peters said at a Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing on Wednesday. “It’s the top job in over 20 states. We need to think very carefully about the impact.”

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Bill sponsors said they hoped to gather more input on Wednesday about whether to include commercial motor vehicles in their driverless car bill or whether to address trucks in separate legislation. The committee has held hearings on automated vehicles this year, but none have touched on highly automated trucks and buses.

A House-passed bill establishing a federal framework to govern self-driving vehicles only included cars, because the committee that wrote the legislation did not have jurisdiction over trucks.

Safety groups argue that excluding trucks from the Senate bill would make roads less safe, pointing to the potential life-saving benefits that driverless technology could bring to the industry. They believe driverless cars and trucks should be governed by the same set of federal standards.

"We need one level of safety for everyone who is on the highways,” said Deborah Hersman, president and CEO of the National Safety Council.

Meanwhile, manufacturers and trucking industry groups warned that the U.S. could fall behind other countries if lawmakers don’t address all vehicles in the Senate measure.

They also emphasized that drivers will still have a role to play in self-drive trucking, such as navigating cityscapes and facilitating pick-ups and deliveries.

“We are at a critical moment in the development of autonomous technology,” said Chris Spear, president and CEO of the American Trucking Associations. “There are many questions to be answered… What is clear is that those questions should be answered for commercial and passenger vehicles at the same time.”

But labor unions maintain that commercial motor vehicles should be exempt from the Senate legislation, because self-driving trucks raise a very different set of safety and operational issues that warrant their own discussion, regulations and bill.

They raised concerns about rushing to use the technology in the trucking industry without adequately addressing cybersecurity issues or the potential impact on jobs and wages.

"The issues facing autonomous commercial trucks are fundamentally different, and potentially more calamitous than those facing passenger cars, and warrant their own careful consideration,” said Ken Hall, general secretary-treasurer of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

“It is terrifying for me to think that we’ve got a tractor-trailer that’s rolling down the road that can be hacked. That’s one of the things that I think there has to be more information, more studies to ensure that we’re not going to have an issue.”

Peters said that lawmakers need to be able to answer key questions before they decide whether to include trucks in their legislative effort, such as what is the industry’s timeline for deploying self-driving cars, does the industry need any federal motor vehicle exemptions and what is the industry’s plan for drivers being displaced.

But after the hearing, Peters told reporters that a lot of those questions still remain unanswered. He did not offer a timeline for when a final bill might be released.

“We still have to have more discussions at this point. I think a number of issues were raised that weren’t fully answered,” he said. “I don’t think the employment issue was fully answered.”