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DOT: What are the unnecessary roadblocks to autonomous trucks?

The U.S. Department of Transportation is about to issue four requests for public comment about self-driving commercial vehicles. The agency and its sub-agencies would like to know if any unnecessary regulatory roadblocks exist that may be slowing the development of autonomous trucks and buses.

"Right now there are too many outdated transportation rules, terms and concepts that no longer apply to an automated world," said Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) recently. Public comment is needed to "help the government identify which regulations, parts of regulations or terminology need to be updated to allow for innovation to move forward," she said.

According to Bloomberg, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is specifically seeking public input on "unnecessary regulatory barriers" that stand in the way of the advancement of self-driving technology in commercial vehicles. It also wants ideas on how the safety of autonomous trucks and buses should be tested and certified.

The Federal Highway Administration is seeking public insight on how automated modes of transportation ought to be accommodated on American roads.

The Federal Transit Administration issued two requests for comment (RFCs). Similar to NHTSA, the FTA is asking for "public comment on current or potential institutional, regulatory, or other policy barriers to the development, demonstration, deployment, and evaluation of automated transit buses and related technologies" in one RFC. In the other, it seeks assistance with developing demonstration projects for automated transit buses and related technology.

The public's comments on these issues will be used to refine the DOT's Federal Automated Vehicle Policy, which currently only relates to self-driving cars. The purpose of the requests for comment, according to Chao, is to prevent the government from standing in the way of innovation.

Would autonomous commercial vehicles make our roads safer?

At this point, it's difficult to know how much the introduction of self-driving trucks and buses could improve safety. The results of most road tests have been largely positive, so far. On the other hand, there may be factors besides safety, such as labor cost savings, driving the technology forward. We have to be vigilant to ensure that safety is the top priority.

One commentator from the Alliance for Transportation Innovation noted an important reality. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, commercial trucks make up only 1 percent of vehicles on U.S. roadways but account for 10 percent of all fatal motor vehicle crashes. Driver fatigue and other human factors often contribute to those accidents, and autonomous vehicles wouldn't suffer from those, at least.

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