Toward the end of 2022, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration may release a proposed rulemaking for fully-automated (autonomous) trucks, according to the head of FMCSA’s technology division. But considering the complexity of autonomous vehicles (AV) – both cars and trucks – that schedule is not locked in.

Take, for example, the question of jurisdiction. FMCSA regulates the safety of trucks and buses in interstate commerce but new motor vehicle standards – such as the equipment and technologies used to make those cars and trucks autonomous – are the province of the National Highway Safety Administration (NHTSA). Autonomous vehicles must also interact with the road system and signage, which involves the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).

FMCSA, NHTSA, and FHWA all reside within the U.S. Department of Transportation. USDOT, however, remains technology-neutral, allowing researchers, technology companies, vehicle manufacturers, and willing states to test various approaches to autonomous vehicles. So long as USDOT maintains a technology-neutral stance, relying on the “marketplace of ideas” for advancement of technology, the uniformity provided by federal regulations is difficult to achieve.

Many states welcome the “marketplace” role – with automated truck testing underway in 28 states. Differences between how states approach AV regulation, driven in part by what a state legislature allows, provide limited opportunities to fully vet autonomous truck operations across the long distances. Then consider the limiting factors of traffic, weather, and road conditions that trucks face in everyday operation.

Meanwhile, states historically hold authority over functions such as driver and vehicle licensing, insurance and liability. Autonomous vehicle technology affects each of those – who is the “driver” when no human is aboard? Does a crash involving an automated truck become a vehicle manufacturer’s “product liability” case in court, or is the motor carrier still on the hook for damages?

Watching these developments with intense interest is the law enforcement community. How does an officer know that a vehicle is operating without human control? What actions can an officer take when that control is, instead, in the hands of a computer or remote operator? How does that officer communicate with a machine, albeit an intelligent machine?

Still, FMCSA appears headed toward an autonomous truck rulemaking. Why? USDOT is right – despite the fact that three-quarters of Americans remain afraid of fully-automated vehicles and nearly 400 crashes in the United States in the last 10 months involved cars using advanced driver-assistance technologies — the marketplace and the relentless advancement of technology are themselves headed that direction. And the assessment by NHTSA that human error causes 95% of all crashes means that all federal regulatory agencies must move toward technology-centric regulations.

As a first step, FMCSA is renewing its call for transportation companies to voluntarily adopt advanced driver assistance systems, such as automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control systems, and camera-based mirror systems. Manufacturers and AV companies will build these technologies into fully automated trucks but can start improving highway safety right now.

What can we expect from FMCSA in the latter part of 2022? In 2019, FMCSA published an advance notice of proposed rulemaking seeking public input on basic questions:

  • Should the federal safety regulations of automated trucks require a human driver? Should there, instead, be a non-driving technician aboard?
  • Should fully-automated trucks require a special CDL endorsement? How should driver medical qualifications be adjusted?
  • Does automation allow adjustment of hours of service rules?
  • Does advanced technology require different nor more frequent inspection and maintenance?
  • How should roadside inspections change?
  • What about cybersecurity and data privacy?

The proposed rulemaking to come will show how FMCSA has answered these 2019 questions and provide an opportunity for the the trucking industry to add its practical experience to what has been learned in the “marketplace of ideas.”