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Chris Spear is president and CEO of the American Trucking Association, a national organization representing the interests of the trucking industry. • 3/13/2017

Safety, Our Roads and Our Future

The breakthroughs of technology may first be applied to our nation’s trucks.

Safety, Our Roads and Our Future

​Blog – Almost every day, you can pick up a newspaper or scroll through the headlines online and find stories about the exciting possibilities a future of autonomous vehicles may provide.

These articles talk about everything from using automation features on a truck to haul beer in Colorado and other automated test trips around the country, to the potential in platooning technology where two trucks can wirelessly connect to improve efficiency, to what the impact on our industry's 3.5 million professional drivers might be.

These are important stories, and important questions, as this technology develops and matures. We are very much at the beginning of what could be a revolution in how we transport goods via truck. We are right now, together as motor carriers, technology companies, truck manufacturers and policymakers, literally working to write the framework that these vehicles will use well into the future.

I was honored to be named to the Department of Transportation's Advisory Committee on Automation in Transportation – a panel of technology leaders, manufacturers, regulators and others who will be advising new DOT Secretary Elaine Chao and the federal government on what that framework should look like. Together with NSC CEO Debbie Hersman, who has also been appointed to this panel, I'm just one of many voices, but here are a few of my thoughts.

While we are still years away from widespread adoption of autonomous vehicles, we're already seeing a number of precursor systems like automatic emergency braking systems, stability control, lane departure warning and forward collision warning systems working their way into the marketplace both for trucking and for passenger vehicles. A lot of these technologies will provide real-world proof that not only can these more comprehensive automation vehicle packages work, but that they provide a return on the investment carriers make in the form of improved safety and efficiency.

It is my belief that as these technologies demonstrate their value to safety and efficiency, we will likely see the rapid adoption of more autonomous technology in trucks. That isn't to say that these systems will replace drivers – just as autopilot systems haven't taken human beings out of the cockpits of airplanes – but we'll see trucks utilizing their own autopilot systems on the highway, entrance to exit, and then have a human driver navigate the more congested city environment and handle pickup and delivery. The technology won't replace drivers, but will enhance their skills, and it is our hope it will improve safety, reduce congestion and improve efficiency – all of which will have the added benefit improving driver recruiting and retention as they'll be able to log more miles, deliver more goods and be paid more as a result.

How do we get to the point where this future can be a reality?

First, we must not stifle innovation. The makers of these technologies are frankly, ahead of where state and federal regulators and lawmakers are in the understanding of what these systems can do. We shouldn't lock them into a framework until all sides have a better handle on the challenges and opportunities presented by automated vehicles. And once we have that, we need a single, national framework – not 50 state regimes – so that we can continue to have seamless, interstate transportation.

Second, we need the FCC to preserve all seven channels of 5.9 GHz spectrum for vehicle communications. That's the secret sauce to getting the most out of automated vehicles, because if we can have vehicles talking to each other and talking to infrastructure, we'll really see the benefits multiply. 

Third, we need to take care of our road infrastructure.  Good pavement quality, lane-markings, road signs and signals will help all vehicles, autonomous or not, and ensure that we keep America moving.

Highly automated vehicles hold great promise for improving safety, not just of the trucking industry, but for all users of our highway system. It is our hope that by being inclusive, and by bringing all parties to the table, we can fully unleash this technology's great potential.

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