Freight connectivity and safety throughout the United States could be on the precipice of major shifts, according to Meera Joshi, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s nominated leader and current deputy administrator, said during a Senate panel last month.
Self-driving vehicle technology, as well as improved vehicle-to-vehicle communication capabilities, will help to finally boost safety in both the passenger and freight transportation sectors in the most innovative ways yet, Joshi said.
“We are indeed in a time of incredible transition within the industry,” she told the panel. “The transition from mechanical to [artificial intelligence] occurs, but for FMCSA, the mission of safety [being] the number one priority stays the same. So, our challenge is to ensure that our regulations to uphold roadway safety translate into an [artificial intelligence] world.”
FMCSA will focus on stakeholder collaboration in regards to creating a federal framework around the utilization of autonomous vehicle technology, Joshi added.
In regards to trucking, “The principles remain the same,” she said. “And we’re embarking on that work now to stand up a regulatory framework for [autonomous vehicle] trucking so that safety is number one. There is room for innovation so that the crash prevention technology that AI brings can benefit road users and [so that] there are accountability measures [in place], so we understand critical things in an automated world.”
For fleets transporting agricultural materials and livestock, Joshi noted that adjustability is key.
“We must be understanding of the businesses we regulate, and I commit to working with [the senate] and the agriculture and livestock industry to make sure that our rules never undermine safety, but allow them to operate.”
As more and more autonomous vehicle technology has become a major focus of the industry and has come to the forefront of many transportation expert discussions, Levinson and Stefani’s Ken Levinson weighs in, explaining that we may be putting too much reliance on this new technology in hopes that it will be an overarching solution to the industry’s safety concerns.
“I always go back to safety,” Levinson said. “As long as the technology can be properly tested and we make sure safety is the paramount concern, I’m open to technology. I’m open to different autonomous options. But, I want to make sure that we’re not skipping some steps in terms of testing and vetting and making sure that people aren’t harmed.”
In fact, many testing situations have shown that this autonomous driving tech is still nowhere near being completely reliable, and shouldn’t yet be an end-all-be-all answer to driver safety. In fact, it was only a few months ago that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration mandated that automakers must report all crashes involving fully autonomous vehicles and partially automated driver-assist systems.
“If we had a very safe autonomous vehicle and it was tested and met strict safety standards, I’m fine with that, but we have to be very careful,” Levinson explained. “There have been too many incidents where they haven’t been safe.”
In a study conducted last year, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that only one-third of all crashes could be potentially avoided if automated systems were operating similarly to human drivers. It was determined that although autonomous vehicles had the potential to spot obstacles and hazards in their path and could avoid them easily, the larger challenge at hand is finding how this technology can bring an end to crashes altogether.
“We’re still going to see some issues, even if autonomous vehicles might react more quickly than humans do,” said vice president of research for IIHS, Jessica Cicchino, at the time of the study. “They’re not going to always be able to react instantaneously.”
Levinson agreed, noting that it’s clear we still have quite a ways to go until this technology can be entirely reliable in keeping our roadways as safe as possible.
“I think we’re a long way away from getting there right now because there are a lot of judgement calls that need to be made in real time that autonomous vehicles, or machines, can’t make,” he said. “Maybe we’ll get to a system that can be closer to being heavily-autonomous, but I don’t think we’re there yet, technologically. I think everybody loves that new shiny object, that technology, that brand-new way to transport people and cargo–but we have to make sure it’s done the right way and in the safest way.”