WASHINGTON — Truck safety advocates are warning federal regulators against approving a roadside safety exemption for autonomous trucks in the face of strong support for the exemption by corporate interests.

Waymo and Aurora petitioned the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration in January for the five-year exemption that would allow all highly automated (Level 4 and Level 5) trucks — not just those developed by Waymo and Aurora — to replace ground-based emergency triangles and flares that warn motorists of a stopped truck with cab-mounted electric lights instead. They also requested that the lights be exempt from a requirement that they be steady-burning.

Safety advocates argue, however, that because the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has yet to issue performance standards for trucks equipped with automated driving systems (ADS), FMCSA in effect would be allowing highly automated trucks to be tested on the roads without having in place performance standards, permitting or reporting requirements.

“Approving this exemption request would be reckless, short-sighted, and short-circuit any deliberate effort by DOT, FMCSA, and NHTSA to act in concert to issue informed rules, regulations, guidance, reporting and performance testing necessary to consider the potential safe deployment of driverless trucks in interstate commerce,” stated Zach Cahalan, executive director of the Truck Safety Coalition (TSC), in comments filed Monday in response to the petition.

Cahalan noted in TSC’s comments, filed jointly with Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways and Parents Against Tired Truckers, that the Waymo/Aurora exemption application “omits highly relevant data points” because, among other things, it does not reveal how frequently trucks to be covered under the exemption have encountered situations in which it was necessary to deploy emergency lighting and warning triangles.

“The burden is on ADS manufacturers and interested carriers to prove to the public and DOT that this technology can work safely at scale,” Cahalan said. “The paucity of data requires that DOT not unnecessarily risk the lives of the 200+ million roadway users who never agreed to be part of this experiment.”

Supporters: Exemption is in the public interest

But Waymo’s and Aurora’s relatively obscure exemption request got the attention of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, with the big-business lobby heavy hitter filing in support of the petition.

Jordan Crenshaw, vice president of the chamber’s Technology Engagement Center, told FMCSA that it should fully account for the benefits of automated freight when considering the application “and evaluate the petition in a timely manner to ensure regulatory certainty” for the industry.

“Granting companies like Aurora and Waymo with the tools they need, such as exemptions, to safely test and deploy automated vehicles across the United States is clearly in the public interest. A successful exemption request will help create high quality jobs, lay the groundwork for modernizing [regulations], incentivize continued research and development, and strengthen the flow of interstate commerce.”

Daimler Truck North America (DTNA), which is partnering with Waymo on ADS development, asserted that granting the exemption would also be consistent with the Biden administration’s Innovation Principles, “which endorse innovation that is focused on reducing deaths and injuries on the nation’s roadways, promote flexibility and support technology that prioritizes its policy goals,” stated DTNA Safety and Government Affairs Manager Ritchie Huang.

The Association for Uncrewed Vehicle Systems International stressed that cab-mounted warning lights “are a step forward in autonomous innovation which can provide safety and security for all of us consistently while maintaining the efficiency that comes with operating” self-driving trucks.

FMCSA risking authority overstep?

In addition to safety advocates, however, small-business trucking and labor are pushing back on Waymo’s and Aurora’s request.

Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association President and CEO Todd Spencer pointed out that the application does not discuss backup warning systems that would kick in if a failure occurred and the cab-mounted lights did not function.

“We continue to see too many instances where AV technology does not perform the way it is designed which further jeopardizes safety performance,” Spencer said. “Reflective triangles and flares are not reliant on technology systems that are so vulnerable to disruptions.”

In addition to accusing Waymo and Aurora of a “single-minded effort to decrease the number of jobs” while disregarding safety, Greg Regan, president of the Transportation Trades Department (TTD) of the AFL-CIO, called their application a “highly unorthodox request” because it would apply to all ADS-equipped trucks.

“Such an exemption would amount to a change in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) without any proposed or final rule being issued and no record in the CFR,” Regan noted. “This would be a serious overstep of FMCSA’s rulemaking authority under the Administrative Procedures Act and would create a dangerous precedent for future waivers and exemptions in all DOT modal agencies.”

Related articles:

FMCSA proposes new requirements for driverless trucks

Aurora approaches autonomous truck finish line

Waymo tops NHTSA’s list for autonomous vehicle crashes

Click for more FreightWaves articles by John Gallagher.

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