The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has said it expects to issue industry guidelines on the deployment of autonomous vehicles later this summer. Dr. Mark Rosekind, NHTSA’s senior administrator, said the guidelines will focus on several key areas, including deployment and testing. He also expects them to offer guidelines on state policies that govern self-driving car testings, and to clarify the process terminology.
NHTSA currently has identified four levels of automation, and a number of vehicles, including Class 8 trucks, are already using semi-autonomous technology such as adaptive cruise control systems.
Steven Shladover, a research engineer at the University of California, Berkeley, said most of the major Class 8 manufacturers are already testing autonomous technology in one form or another, adding that eventually trucks will be equipped with different levels of automated technology, some of which can take decisions out of the hands of drivers.
PACCAR, Daimler and Volvo have all done testing of autonomous technologies. Bill Kahn, Peterbilt principal engineer and manager of advanced concepts, said, “The autonomous truck of the future is an extension of existing, individual systems already available for today’s commercial vehicles.”
In mid-2015, Freightliner revealed its Inspiration Truck — the first licensed autonomous commercial truck to operate on an open public highway in the United States — which it is testing in Nevada. The Inspiration Truck can activate the Highway Pilot option that links together camera and radar technology with systems providing lane stability, collision avoidance, speed control, braking, steering and an advanced dash display.
Truck manufacturers, including Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA), have said they have no plans to make driverless vehicles. Kahn noted the automation technologies are not driver replacement tools but rather complement the truck operator.
However, Anthony Foxx, Secretary of the Department of Transportation, has said that he would like the guidelines for autonomous cars to establish parameters for federal and state officials to work together to determine when the software in self-driving cars might reach the level where a licensed driver would not be required.
NHTSA said the numbers of U.S. traffic deaths, which are on the rise, underscore the need for autonomous vehicles to protect Americans, adding that autonomous vehicles will eliminate human error while driving and help drivers avoid or mitigate 70 percent to 80 percent of vehicle crashes involving unimpaired drivers.
U.S. traffic deaths increased nearly 8 percent in 2015 after years of declines, according to preliminary data NTHSA released on July 1. About 35,200 people died in 2015, up 7.7 percent from the 32,675 fatalities reported in 2014.
Despite the potential for autonomous technology benefits, there are risks. NHTSA is investigating the first American death involving a self-driving car — the Tesla Model S vehicle’s Autopilot system. In May, a driver was killed when his car’s cameras failed to distinguish the white side of a turning tractor-trailer from a bright sky and did not automatically activate the brakes.
If Class 8 manufacturers ever strive to develop driverless vehicles, the technology would work best in a truckonly lane that is separated from cars and trucks, Shladover said.