Federal regulators are anticipating the day when hours-of-service rules may have to be changed to accommodate automated driving systems.

Those changes could emerge in situations where half the team in a long-haul driving operation is not human, according to Jeff Loftus, who heads the technology division in the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s Office of Analysis, Research and Technology.

“We’re trying to anticipate new business models, where there could be instances with emerging business strategies where you have truck drivers and automated trucking systems perhaps performing as a team, where they switch back and forth,” Loftus said on Wednesday during a panel discussion hosted by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), which supports automated freight systems.

“We’re trying to understand the technology aspects of that and anticipating the potential of getting requests for exemptions in our regulations in the future, such that the vehicle may perform some of the driving task, the human will perform others, and what changes do we have to make to our hours-of-service regulations, as an example.”

Loftus said FMCSA is working with the trucking industry and safety groups as it considers potential changes. He pointed to a $7.5 million grant awarded to Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) to help develop automated trucking fleets that will inform industry guidelines for autonomous vehicle technology.

Trish Fritz, deputy director of government affairs at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said during the discussion that automated driving systems (ADS) in large trucks present “a tremendous opportunity,” but can potentially be dangerous if drivers don’t understand how to use them.

“We also know that none of the technologies on the market can replace an active, alert driver, because there are no self-driving [vehicles] available for the public to purchase today.”

Fritz cited NHTSA’s recent standing general order requiring crash and incident reporting of vehicles equipped with ADS (Level 3-5 automation) or Level 2 advanced driver assistance system (ADAS), and emphasized that the order applies to prototype systems that are being tested on public roads.

“This action will improve safety and transparency by providing the agency with critical and timely safety data that will also be made available to the public,” she said. “Public opinion is really important, so we will be providing that data as summary information available on our website.”

Despite the work being done by regulators to support the safe integration of ADS, the highest level of automation — Level 5, which requires no interaction by the driver and the driving operations of the truck — is “a bit out there,” Loftus said.

“Level 5 is more of a myth, in the sense that, I think we’re going to have Level 4 activities in very specific routes for a significant amount of time as they build up capacity and scalability. But with mixed fleets, we really need to make sure human truck drivers and car drivers are going to be comfortable driving around self-driving trucks so that there aren’t a lot of surprises.”

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