Senate Driverless-Car Bill Stuck on Trucks

Republicans want trucks included in new legislation, but Democrats are fretting over cybersecurity and the possible displacement of over 3 million drivers.

A demonstration of self-driving, big-rig trucks at Otto headquarters in San Francisco in August 2016.
AP Photo/Tony Avelar
Brendan Bordelon
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Brendan Bordelon
Sept. 13, 2017, 8 p.m.

In a rare show of unity, last week the House of Representatives unanimously passed legislation speeding the deployment of driverless cars onto U.S. roadways. But as the Senate grapples with its own version of the landmark legislation, clashes over the fate of America’s trucking industry are blocking the on-ramp.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune wants language in the bill that would allow automakers to expedite the deployment of autonomous or semiautonomous trucks, replacing in the process a patchwork of state and local regulations. That language does not exist in a draft bill released by Thune’s committee last Friday, which instead commits only to increasing the deployment of driverless light vehicles through a dramatic expansion of the number of safety exemptions received by automakers.

Anxiety over including trucks in driverless-vehicle legislation is being driven by Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan, a longtime proponent of autonomous technology more generally. Peters and several of his fellow Democrats believe lawmakers should study the unique challenges represented by an automated trucking industry before passing legislation. That’s particularly true when it comes to cybersecurity—an 80,000-pound truck hijacked by hackers would be a formidable terror weapon—and the jobs of the over 3 million American truckers, which could be disrupted or even rendered obsolete by the new technology.

During a Wednesday Commerce Committee hearing on the issue, Peters said he did not believe highly automated trucks were ripe for inclusion in the Senate’s bill. And in talks with reporters after the hearing, he said it was hard to discern a path forward. “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. I raised a number of questions from other safety organizations that have serious concerns about including trucks until we fully vet it.

“The House passed a bill that did not include trucks. It passed unanimously,” Peters added. “We have a path to move this bill forward without trucks, [and] we should try to get it done as quickly as we can.”

Peters and Thune have long operated in lockstep when it comes to driverless cars, and trucks represent the first real break the two lawmakers have had on the issue in some time. In remarks to reporters after the hearing, Thune likened finding an agreement with his Democratic colleagues to “thread[ing] the needle.” But he also stressed that he wanted the bill to be bipartisan, and said he was optimistic the two sides would come to an agreement by the end of the month.

Thune’s argument—which was largely backed by the industry and safety representatives arrayed at Wednesday’s panel—is that to delay legislation hastening the deployment of autonomous trucks on America’s highways needlessly puts more drivers in harm’s way. That includes the truck drivers themselves, many of whom would stand to benefit from lower-level automation that would cause their jobs to morph into something akin to airline pilots, taking the wheel for “takeoff” and “landing” but letting the truck steer through long stretches of open road.

Industry representatives told lawmakers that, contrary to popular perception, autonomous technology is unlikely to drive truckers out of their jobs (at least in the short term). When Peters asked Chris Spear, the president and chief executive of the American Trucking Associations, why his group provided no data on job displacement as a result of the new technology, Spear said it was because his organization doesn’t anticipate any near-term displacement at all.

“We don’t believe Level 5—no steering wheel, no pedals—is imminent,” Spear said. “What we’re really focused on is driver-assist technologies, not driverless.” Spear said his industry was in fact facing a shortage of 50,000 truckers, and argued that cutting-edge technologies in truck cabs could attract younger drivers to the job and help solve the industry’s labor shortage.

Ken Hall, the general secretary of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, was the sole panelist warning lawmakers to pump the brakes before including trucks in the new legislation. While conceding the current driver shortage, Hall said he remained concerned that autonomous technology would lower wages for truckers now expected to do less behind the wheel. He argued that the trucking industry is sufficiently different from that of consumer light vehicles to deserve its own bill, and that it should be done only after Congress has devoted sufficient time to examining the issue.

That’s particularly true when it comes to cybersecurity, a theme Hall returned to time and again in an effort to convince lawmakers to hold off. “A truck driver will have to think about having his rig hacked and used as the next weapon in a Nice- or Barcelona-style attack,” he said, referencing recent terror attacks in Europe that used commercial trucks to plow into crowds of civilians.

Troy Clarke, the chief executive of truck manufacturer Navistar, told reporters after the hearing that while cybersecurity was a “big concern,” it’s important that the government resist the temptation to dictate which security methods manufacturers use. “If you do, you’re giving the bad guys half the equation, the problem they’ve got to solve,” Clarke said. “This is an area that’s emerging so rapidly, we need the flexibility to be able to innovate in this space.”

Even if Thune and Peters can “thread the needle” on trucks, the House may not have the bandwidth to dive into the contentious issue during reconciliation. A House Energy and Commerce spokeswoman didn’t answer questions from National Journal on whether Chairman Greg Walden was interested in adding autonomous trucks to the House bill, saying only that the committee was looking forward to working with Senate colleagues to put a bill on the president’s desk.

Thune told reporters after the hearing that jurisdictional concerns in the House may have prevented the Energy and Commerce Committee from wrestling with trucks, as that effort would have had to include the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. The senator added that his office has engaged in “informal” talks with House staffers in an effort to begin the reconciliation process.

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