Safety and industry experts on Wednesday urged Senate lawmakers to push ahead with placing autonomous-trucking technology on America’s roadways, saying the vehicles could be a “game-changer” for highway fatalities and warning of the economic risks the U.S. would face should it fall behind in trucking’s very own “space race.””The most exciting aspect of this transformative advancement is the potential to save thousands of lives every year on our nation’s highways,” Sen. John Thune, a South Dakota Republican and chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said during a hearing hearing held by his panel on self-driving trucks. The session comes as Congress is pondering legislation on autonomous vehicles, and Thune said autonomous-truck technology “holds great promise to transform transportation in this country.”
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The trade group American Trucking Associations estimates trucks are responsible for transporting 70 percent of all freight shipped throughout the U.S. each year by weight. The industry brought in $726.4 billion in gross revenues in 2015, and moved nearly 10.5 billion tons of product while employing 3.5 million drivers.
But with the gradual advance of technology that could completely change the responsibilities and qualifications required of drivers – one day perhaps replacing them altogether – industry experts and lawmakers are trying to stay ahead of what’s likely to be a wave of upheaval for the trucking world in the not-so-distant future.
“Trucks share our roads, deliver our goods and keep our economy moving,” Thune said Wednesday. “There were 3 million commercial drivers in the U.S., and they are the backbone of the economy. Technological advancements have the potential to affect them in very different ways, including positive ways.”
“With proper testing and controls, I think this is the game-changer when it comes to highway fatalities,” said Deborah Hersman, CEO of the National Safety Council and former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. “Whether it’s data-sharing, testing protocols, engagement of all of the right stakeholders – these are all issues that we need to begin to discuss.”