Autonomous Solutions

Stacy Hampel
2024-04-04
Blog Autonomous Next Hub-to-Hub
Author
Stacy Hampel
After many years of leading legal teams in New York, Stacy relocated to North Carolina and joined Volvo Group in 2015. In 2021, Stacy helped establish the legal and compliance function within Volvo Autonomous Solutions as the first General Counsel for th

Navigating the road ahead: exploring the regulatory framework for autonomous vehicles in the United States

Autonomy holds enormous potential to transform the transportation industry for the better by making the global supply chain more efficient, addressing driver shortages, and meeting customers’ growing freight demands. But even with the expected benefits of autonomy, there are mixed reactions from the public. And governments around the world are either slow to act or enacting inconsistent regulations to govern autonomous vehicle technology. The United States is one such government that has yet to enact consistent, national legislation. The U.S. federal government has not yet passed legislations specific to autonomous vehicles, and there are variations in how autonomous vehicles are managed from state-to-state. This causes challenges for autonomous companies who are ready to deploy this new technology in the real-world.

 

At Volvo Autonomous Solutions, we believe that we need regulatory consistency to unlock the full benefits of autonomy. But how do we get there? And what obstacles do we need to overcome to achieve an autonomous-friendly regulatory landscape? Let’s explore the regulatory framework in the United States for autonomous vehicles, look at what it’s like in other parts of the world, and discuss how the transportation industry would benefit from a common regulatory framework for the deployment of autonomous commercial vehicles.
 

The current regulatory framework for autonomous vehicles in the United States

Currently, there are no federal laws or regulations governing commercial autonomous vehicles in the United States. And when I say autonomous commercial vehicles, I’m talking about vehicles used for business purposes like transportation, logistics, and delivery services.

 

Since the United States is comprised of 50 individual states, when the federal government chooses not to make a rule, law or regulation for certain areas, the individual states are free to make their own regulations. Some states, like Texas and Arizona, have enacted rules that allow or even promote the use of autonomous commercial vehicles. These states have established a framework that allows driverless operations and have begun issuing testing permits for autonomous driving companies. That’s why we, and others in the industry, have invested resources to grow operations in autonomy-friendly states like Texas.

 

Other states, like California, have proposed laws that would require human drivers in autonomous vehicles for at least the next five years. This is referred to as “driver-in” legislation, and it’s being promoted by those who fear that autonomous vehicles might displace human drivers. This is not the case – we at Volvo Autonomous Solutions believe that human drivers and autonomous vehicles will always coexist – and it’s something I’ll go into more detail on later.
 

The challenge of inconsistent regulations and the warning triangle dilemma

Regulatory variation presents certain challenges, especially as we aim to expand across the sunbelt of the United States. Further complicating the matter, current federal regulations governing the transportation industry always assume that human drivers operate vehicles, resulting in a lack of clear rules for autonomous vehicles companies looking to deploy driverless trucks.

 

For example, when a truck needs emergency assistance, it must pull over to the side of the road. Federal law requires a driver to place a warning triangle or other permitted warning signal behind the truck to alert other drivers that it has stopped. However, since autonomous trucks do not have human drivers, they cannot fulfil this requirement. This highlights the inconsistent nature of current federal regulations and the needs of commercial autonomous vehicles. To address the warning triangle issue, autonomous technology companies have instead proposed “warning beacons”, which are asynchronous flashing flights atop of cab intended to warn the motoring public of a roadside vehicle. Even with this example, the autonomous vehicle companies have requested an exemption from the current law. The idea is that with this exemption in place, autonomous vehicle companies could operate consistently while lawmakers work to implement a more permanent solution.

 

For this reason, and many others, we feel that the solution lies in implementing federal legislation that considers autonomous commercial vehicles to supersede current, conflicting state legislations. Consistent federal legislations would establish a minimum standard for all 50 states, allowing autonomous vehicle companies like Volvo Autonomous Solutions to freely transport goods between states. This kind of federal legislation would help provide clarity on the requirements for operating autonomous vehicles and enable smoother operations for autonomous motor carriers.
 

What are regulations for autonomous commercial vehicles like in other parts of the world?

Countries like the United Kingdom and China, for example, are prioritizing autonomous vehicle legislation. The UK has introduced bills and laws that establish a regulatory framework for testing and deploying autonomous vehicles, allowing trials in cities like London and Milton Keynes. China is also investing in infrastructure, has issued guidelines and regulations for testing and deployment, and designated certain cities as pilot zones.

In addition to the Automated Vehicles Bill, the UK also introduced laws governing digital markets and data protection. Comprehensive legislation like this promotes innovation, while providing certainty to the industry and would-be customers. Volvo Autonomous Solutions supports this initiative and will continue to advocate for similar legislation in the United States.
 

What will the deployment of autonomous commercial vehicles look like?

We at Volvo Autonomous Solutions believe that autonomous vehicles will operate within an ecosystem that requires human-machine interaction. Our aim is not to displace human drivers. Instead, our model will create exciting new roles, such as autonomous vehicle inspectors and terminal operators, while promoting improvements to safety and allowing truck drivers to operate closer to home.

 

The current deployment of autonomous trucks is focused on the U.S. interstates, where there are no pedestrians, lots of lanes, and wide, straight roads. Currently, autonomous commercial vehicles are expected to deploy for middle-mile transport between terminals, with human operators driving commercial vehicles between the first and last mile. So, while automation continues to advance, there will still be employment opportunities for humans in the larger autonomous vehicle ecosystem required to coordinate the operation and maintain the technology.

 

It’s important to remember that our world has always changed, and human beings have consistently adapted to our new surroundings. This time is no different. While companies such as Volvo Autonomous Solutions expect to deploy autonomous vehicles for long-haul trucking routes, humans will still play important roles within the autonomous vehicle ecosystem.
 

What obstacles do we need to overcome to achieve a nationwide deployment of autonomous commercial vehicles?

Currently, federal regulators are more focused on autonomous consumer vehicles like cars and smaller delivery vans, and less focused on commercial vehicles, like heavy-duty trucks. Volvo Autonomous Solutions and others in the commercial autonomous trucking space are working to educate regulators and the public about the benefits of commercial autonomous vehicles, so that they receive appropriate attention from the United States lawmakers.

 

As is true with the introduction of any new technology, autonomy faces the need for public acceptance. A federal legiskation would be a significant step toward fostering public support of autonomous technology and enabling an autonomous-friendly future. This would also help enable the creation of critical infrastructure, such as highway terminals, which is also important for the successful implementation of autonomous trucking.

 

The business case is also going to be crucial. We’ve seen it already with companies like Uber Freight and DHL signing up to our Hub-to-Hub autonomous key customer program. Think about the current transportation industry. In the United States, certain companies offer two-day delivery for almost anything. The reason why that’s possible? We put most freight on airplanes. Trucks are bound by restrictions that assume a human is operating the vehicle and can’t compete with airplanes. But with autonomous trucks, the idea is that you could operate for more hours, more consistently, and cross the country in as few as two days. We believe that the business case is strong and fills an unmet need in the transportation industry.
 

What now?

As leaders in autonomous transport solutions, we fully support federal legislations for autonomous commercial vehicles in the United States. These legislations should be fair, functional, and create a runway for companies like Volvo Autonomous Solutions to demonstrate the societal benefits of autonomous commercial vehicles. We know that autonomy is crucial to create a safe and efficient transport system that addresses labour shortages and contributes to the overall economy.

 

This is why we are continuing our advocacy efforts to achieve consistent federal legislation. And we look forward to continuing our work with the Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association to advocate for legislation supporting the safe deployment of autonomous vehicles in the United States.

 

We know that humans will always be an important part of this industry. As we prepare to introduce autonomous technology to the commercial trucking industry, we seek to create opportunities for human drivers by allowing them to work closer to home and letting autonomous trucks carry the burden of long-haul, middle-mile routes. We’re excited to continue advocating for consistent regulations that would benefit the industry as a whole.  

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