Tesla Inc.’s reported plan to operate autonomous semitractor-trailers on U.S. public roads faces an evolving regulatory landscape. A U.S. Senate proposal for autonomous vehicles has stalled, largely due to controversy over its provision to create a national framework for self-driving commercial vehicles.
Companies such as Uber Technologies Inc. and Daimler AG have been developing autonomous semis for several years, but have had to limit operations to states that allow self-driving commercial vehicles, which are vehicles weighing over 10,000 pounds. A Senate proposal for autonomous vehicle legislation that circulated this summer would have set the first framework allowing autonomous commercial vehicles to operate nationwide, industry sources told Bloomberg BNA. But the plan has hit opposition from labor unions and Democrats, and its failure could lead to a further patchwork of state laws controlling these vehicles.
Tesla’s efforts to test autonomous semis in Nevada and California were first reported by Reuters Aug. 9. A Tesla spokesperson declined to comment further to Bloomberg BNA about the company’s plans.
Streamlined Semi Rollout
Some industry stakeholders have hailed the potential of self-driving semis for quicker mainstream deployment than passenger vehicles. The technology could appeal to companies looking to cut the expense of truckers whose driving hours are also limited by labor regulations. Highways provide relatively easy to navigate, pedestrian-free environments where self-driving technologies present lower risks, proponents say.
A draft circulated this summer of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee proposal aimed to speed up the safe rollout of autonomous vehicles included commercial vehicles, multiple industry sources told Bloomberg BNA. Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.), Gary Peters (D-Mich.), and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) had said they were aiming to introduce the bipartisan legislation before August.
Worries about the impact of self-driving commercial trucks on labor and state laws are a major reason the Senate bill has since failed to advance, the industry sources told Bloomberg BNA. The week of July 31, Thune told reporters the bill had stalled due to “substantive” issues raised by Democrat members of the committee, which was now trying to work through the legislation by this fall.
Labor groups, such as the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Division, have voiced concerns that Congress is moving too quickly to roll out a technology without closely studying its impact on jobs and public safety. A March 2017 report by the Center for Global Policy Solutions, a think tank focused on economic and societal inclusion, estimated that four million jobs would likely be lost in a rapid transition to autonomous vehicles, primarily to those in driving occupations.
“Senate drafters of this bill must ensure that public safety is not jeopardized by the early introduction of driverless vehicles onto our nation’s roads, and more must be done to address the massive job loss that will occur with the commercial adoption of this technology,” Larry I. Wills, President of the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO told Bloomberg BNA in a statement. “Until lawmakers have solid answers to these questions, commercial motor vehicles — including transit buses and trucks — should be excluded from autonomous vehicle legislation.
In July, the House Energy and Commerce Committee unanimously passed legislation mapping out a regulatory plan for autonomous vehicles, but the bill specifically does not apply to vehicles over 10,000 pounds. This exclusion was created in part because the committee’s jurisdiction does not include commercial vehicles, unlike Senate Commerce.
State Semi Patchwork
An autonomous vehicle law that doesn’t include commercial vehicles could mean that self-driving semis hit U.S. roads in select states without the additional safety assessments or standards that final autonomous vehicle legislation would set for passenger cars and trucks, an industry source told Bloomberg BNA. It could also spur a greater patchwork of state laws for commercial vehicles in lieu of a federal framework, they said.
In the meantime, states have already adopted regulations and laws controlling autonomous commercial vehicle use. States like Nevada, which met with Tesla representatives in June, according to a spokesperson from the state’s department of motor vehicles, allow companies to apply for a testing license to operate self-driving semis. California does not allow testing of autonomous commercial vehicles, but is currently working to develop regulations to allow the technology on public roads, a spokesperson from the California Department of Motor Vehicles told Bloomberg BNA.
“We know and recognize there will be many benefits for commercial vehicles—but from a public perception standpoint, if we really want to foster this rollout of the technology, we didn’t think it would really sit well with the public if the first time they saw this technology was in 80,000 pound semi trucks on the freeway,” Bernard Soriano, deputy director of the California Department of Motor Vehicles said on a Washington panel in June.