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April 12, 2017

FedEx Freight calls for US self-driving truck regulations

  • Agency
  • Robotics/AI

Financial Times – The head of FedEx Freight has called for aviation-style federal rules to govern autonomous trucking in the US, at a time when the regulatory future of self-driving trucks is still undecided.

Michael Ducker, chief executive of FedEx Freight, one of the largest shipment companies in the US, told the Financial Times that it was regulation and social acceptance, not technology barriers, that would determine how soon self-driving tech became widely adopted in US trucking. 

“It is coming faster than many people think, just because technology is advancing so rapidly,” Mr Ducker said. “I think technology will lead, and sociological issues will lag, in this particular case.”

While many self-driving car companies have lobbied to test passenger vehicles with no human drivers (and even no steering wheels), large logistics and trucking companies are taking a different approach, one that emphasises a continued role for the driver. 

Mr Ducker used the analogy of aeroplane pilots, who are highly trained even though aeroplanes mostly use autopilot, as an illustration of what automated trucking could look like. 

Trucking is the primary method of freight shipment in the US, accounting for more than 70 per cent of goods shipped and generating more than $700bn in revenues a year. Trucking is expected to be the first industry to test self-driving technology on a wide scale, because of the financial incentives for trucking companies and the relative ease of driving on highways. 

One concern for many trucking companies is to avoid fragmented regulations at the state level, which is the current situation, and instead to have uniform federal regulation for automated trucks. Mr Ducker said one possibility would be “standardised nationwide certification processes, just like you do for aviation”, adding that he discussed this with lawmakers in Washington last week. 

The US Department of Transportation is expected to issue its first guidelines for self-driving trucks later this year, which will be the first time it has addressed the issue. The lack of federal guidelines has hampered technologies such as platooning, in which one truck closely follows another, because different states have different minimum following distances. The DoT issued similar guidelines for smaller self-driving passenger vehicles last year. 

However, some in the industry caution that there is also a danger of over-regulation at a time when the technology is not fully developed. 

“We are in a homework phase right now. We need to understand what the technology needs,” said Chris Spear, chief executive of the American Trucking Associations. “Innovation is driving this, not regulation.”

Another important issue for trucking automation is how much the government will invest in the digital infrastructure for self-driving technologies. Logistics companies have long lobbied for more government spending on roads and highways — and now that wishlist includes better technology to help vehicles communicate with each other and with their operation bases.

The US government is expected open up a new portion of the spectrum — 5.9GHz — which the ATA and others have urged should be used exclusively for vehicle communications. 

Image citation: Coolcaesar, CC BY-SA 3.0