America’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FCMSA) isn’t sure when autonomous commercial trucks are coming, but its researchers are busily preparing for widespread use of the technology – including the potential impact on the workforce, the Administration’s new acting boss has said.

FCMSA’s office of analysis, research and technology, addressed autonomous truck technology during a virtual version of its yearly update  last week and response to a question about how fully autonomous trucks would affect the workforce, the new deputy administrator and acting boss of FMCSA Meera Joshi said, “This is a real topic.”

Although no one knows for sure when autonomous trucks may become widely adopted Ms Joshi said that the perception of that timeline differs depending on what perspective you’re looking at.

“If it’s your livelihood being threatened, it seems immediate, if you’re a developer frustrated by the pace of advancement, it seems farther out,” she said.

“The truth is there’s a huge workforce that today travels all across America and perform the duties of professional drivers, and it’s been a mainstay of American employment for a long time, so automated vehicles will certainly make inroads into that workforce,” she added.

“It’s a hard question to answer empirically, as we just don’t yet have the data to be able to predict when or how significant that impact will be,” Joshi said.

“It is certainly a priority of this administration, this DOT, and the Department of Labor, understanding that there are real and broad impacts to automation on peoples’ livelihoods.”

“The administration needs to think about opportunities to where that workforce can be shifted, what training opportunities there are to allow displaced drivers to prepare for new careers, and what additional jobs may actually be created through automation,” she explained.

“We can argue about the scope and the timeline, but we can’t argue that there will be a major shift in workforce. We are working to best prepare the workforce for this change regardless of the timeline and the size of the disruption.”

Luke Loy, senior engineer in FMCSA’s Office of Policy, said the agency started the process of evaluating how autonomous vehicles will affect its safety and enforcement functions  almost three years ago.

“Autonomous trucks raise questions about regulations regarding areas such as driver licencing, hours of service, roadside inspections, cybersecurity, and more,” Loy said.

“After researching the issue for the past few years, the agency drafted a notice of proposed rulemaking that would amend and revise certain regulations. That proposal has not been published yet, and the acting administrator’s is reviewing that draft.”

“I imagine some changes will be made, and hopefully that will go up to the secretary of transportation’s office for approval,” he said.

“The office is focused on Level 4 and Level 5 autonomy as defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers, and its only at those levels where the automated driving system controls all aspects of the driving tasks without intervention of a human driver,” he explained.

“We primarily believe that Level 3 relies on the human for intervention, and that person would be considered the ‘driver,’ and still subject to current driver regulations.”

The US Department of Transportation has in the past few years adopted evolving comprehensive plans regarding automated vehicles. The latest one was published for comment just before the change in the US administration, and the comment period closes on 22 March.

Luke Loy indicated that he felt the new administration might have some different priorities so he was unsure of the fate of this version of the plan.

The Administration  is also doing its own automated vehicle technology testing and has outfitted a commercial coach with external cameras, radar, and lidar equipment.

“One of the things we’re looking at is we believe that during on-road usage of some of these Level 4 and 5 vehicles, we may run into situations where environmental degradation may affect the cleanliness or visibility of the cameras, which may affect the performance of the ADS technologies, due to bugs or dirt or rain or some other condition,” Loy explained.

He suggested that pre-trip inspection protocols for SAE Level 4 and 5 vehicles might need to incorporate evaluation of this sensor equipment.

Ken Riddle, acting director of the Office of Research and Technology, highlighted some selected research projects his office is working on related to autonomous trucks.

“How do you pull over and inspect a fully autonomous truck? How does it put out warning triangles? There are lots of challenges to overcome. We need to start thinking about those challenges now and how to overcome them,” said Ken Riddle.