Self-driving truck policy takes a big step forward

Last week the Federal Government released an update to their self-driving policy known as Automated Vehicles (AV) 3.0. This update is especially significant because, for the first time, it includes rules that set out how to deploy self-driving trucks. We are very excited about this update — as a result of AV 3.0 self-driving trucks are now allowed to operate across more than 90% of the United States once they are demonstrated to be safe.

For over a year, we have been engaging with the team at the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) who wrote these new truck rules to support common-sense regulations. We are very excited to see that FMCSA’s new rules clear the way for self-driving trucks, maintain a focus on safety, and provide room for future innovation. Below are highlights from AV 3.0 that we believe are most important for our industry:

Driverless commercial vehicles can be deployed using existing rules

A year ago, AV 2.0 noted:

Currently, per the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSRs), a trained commercial driver must be behind the wheel at all times, regardless of any automated driving technologies available on the CMV….

This suggested a formal rulemaking would be needed to enable any driverless operation. After a year of gathering information from a wide range of stakeholders and experts, FMCSA reversed this position, concluding in AV 3.0 that:

Carriers therefore may deploy [Automated Driving System]-equipped CMVs in interstate commerce, using existing administrative processes.

Removing the necessity of a lengthy, prescriptive rule-making process is an important step towards commercializing self-driving trucks.

Human-specific regulations do not apply to self-driving trucks.

Self-driving trucks created questions about how some truck regulations (called Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations, or FMCSRs) intended for human drivers would be applied to trucks with no human aboard. In AV 3.0, these questions have been answered. The guidance states:

…in the case of vehicles that do not require a human operator, none of the human-specific FMCSRs (i.e., drug testing, hours-of-service, commercial driver’s licenses (CDL)s, and physical qualification requirements) apply.
…[FMCSA’s] policy is that going forward FMCSA regulations will no longer assume that the CMV [commercial motor vehicle] driver is always a human or that a human is necessarily present onboard a commercial vehicle during its operation.

The result is an approach that sweeps away unnecessary constraints to self-driving trucks while retaining essential safety rules.

FMCSA has preemptive authority to support interstate operation of automated trucks.

Like freight trucks today, self-driving trucks will need federal rules so that they can seamlessly operate across state borders. Addressing the possibility that state rules could constrain interstate operation, AV 3.0 notes:

If FMCSA determines that State or local legal requirements may interfere with the application of FMCSRs, the Department has preemptive authority.

This sends a clear message that FMCSA will continue its leadership role to ensure the smooth functioning of interstate commerce in the self-driving truck era.

Why is AV 3.0 so significant for trucks?

Much of the national conversation on autonomous vehicle regulation has centered on equipment standards. Automated cars designed without steering wheels or pedals require special exemptions from existing standards. The SELF DRIVE Act passed in the House and the AV START Act currently under consideration in the Senate aimed to expand how many exemptions could be granted, among other things. However, this issue is largely irrelevant for self-driving technology added to otherwise conventional vehicles, like freight trucks.

Instead, the two main barriers for self-driving trucks have been a lack of clarity on how FMCSA would apply existing interstate trucking rules to new technology, and the potential for different state rules to impede interstate operation.

AV 3.0 emphatically removes the first barrier, and replaces it with a clear message that FMCSA will allow self-driving trucks to operate in interstate commerce once they can prove they are safe and maintain compliance with existing commercial vehicle rules.

For the second barrier, while a small minority of states may have rules that constrain self-driving truck operation, FMCSA is stepping up to make sure such trucks, like their manually driven counterparts, will operate seamlessly across state lines.

Looking Ahead

We wholeheartedly agree with FMCSA when they write, “The best way to accomplish FMCSA’s core mission of reducing fatalities and crashes involving large trucks and buses is to avoid unnecessary barriers to the development of [Automated Driving Systems] in commercial vehicles.”

Looking ahead, we at Embark will continue to engage and partner with government on self-driving truck policy. With the release of AV 3.0, we are closer than ever to the day when self-driving trucks are safely and efficiently moving freight across the country.