In January, I attended the Transportation Research Board’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C. with Jason Craig, C.H. Robinson’s director of government affairs. While a variety of issues were discussed, the hottest topic across transportation policy professionals was new technology that could dramatically shape the future of logistics: autonomous vehicles (AV) and their potential implications on society and transportation. Three themes seem to be emerging around AV in freight transportation:
Tension between state and federal regulators
Currently, AV technology is viewed as needing incubation and development before it can be successfully brought to the market, and that requires a loose regulatory environment that allows for experimentation. This must be also balanced with safety for the public. States seem to be in a race to innovate and allow liberal testing, but the federal government and trucking industry will keep a close eye on progress so that a broad patchwork of 50 different sets of regulations do not take hold, creating regulation that cannot cross state lines.
At some point, this conflict will come to a head, and the federal government likely will exert influence over the regulatory regime for AV, including trucking. One example of this is that California already restricted AV testing to under 10,000 pounds, which is why the Otto “beer run” occurred in Colorado and not California.
Policymakers view safety as AV’s greatest benefit
There is tremendous faith in the ability of AV technology to work successfully in real world environments. Safety was the main theme for all stakeholders when discussing AV benefits in trucking. Will this sentiment remain if there are any hiccups in testing? All stakeholders mentioned that they do not see AV technology completely eliminating the need for a driver.
Timelines are accelerating
One year ago, most policymakers did not see a need to address this emerging technology because it was distant. Now, it is real and current. American Trucking Associations CEO Chris Spear thinks the commercial freight industry may lead the adoption of AV technology (perhaps before cars) because the economic and safety benefits will make the ROI on the new technology crystal clear. But as the impacts of AVs are discussed more broadly, additional policy impacts will be uncovered. For example, how will zero wander from car and truck tires impact pavement wear? What insurance implications will there be?
This will be a year in which AV technology rapidly accelerates from awareness and testing to potential regulation and public impact. Whether AV trucks have a role in the supply chain in five years or 15 years, the industry will be discussing their implications throughout 2017.
Check out our previous post for more information on how government can champion innovation and new technology to connect and optimize global supply chains.