A ITF report analyses the impacts of increased automation of the driving task for road freight transport. It investigates the technology options from platooning to full autonomy and examines necessary policy responses. Focusing on the underlying regulatory frameworks, it asks how existing approaches can be maintained and when and how solutions will be needed.
Automation of road transport is a clear trend. Many technologies that will be required for full automation (SAE level 5) are already being developed and tested globally. First use cases are emerging but their future deployment is still uncertain.
Low-speed urban shuttles for shared mobility and automated trucks on motorways are among the most likely first implementations. The business case for automating road freight also points towards early adoption. However, fragmented regulations and lagging regulatory responses to technological developments require new solutions.
The ITF report presents a series of measures.
Focus regulatory attention on autonomous trucks as one of the likely early areas of vehicle automation
Regulatory attention regarding automated driving has focused too narrowly on passenger vehicles. Long distance road freight is one of the most likely initial applications of advanced vehicle automation technologies. It makes extensive use of inter-urban motorways, which provide a less complex environment than other roads. There is also a commercial incentive for automation of trucks. Labor costs constitute between 35% to 45% of costs for long distance road freight in Europe. Automated road freight could also alleviate pressure from the persistent driver shortages in the United States and Europe.
Ensure international harmonization of regulation for autonomous trucks
Harmonization is more important for autonomous trucks than for other forms of automated driving. By its nature, long distance road freight crosses jurisdictional boundaries, both at Federal State borders and international borders. Thus multiple regulatory frameworks could apply on a single trip. Diverging regulations could thus require cross-border freight operators to install multiple onboard systems in their vehicles or to change vehicles at jurisdictional borders. At worst, they could effectively prevent certain automation technologies from being used in particular jurisdictions.
Use the flexibility within existing regulatory frameworks to accommodate vehicle automation technologies
Today’s regulations can stretch to accommodate vehicle automation technologies to a certain point. Up to automation level SAE 2, technology assists rather than replaces drivers. Current regulatory frameworks are thus able to accommodate them. Existing road rules, vehicle standards, and type approval processes can also handle this degree of automation relatively well. This provides a short window of opportunity for regulators to prepare for regulating higher levels of automation. Central concepts such as “driver” and “control” offer room for interpretation. The term “driver” for instance could evolve to mean not only a human but potentially include multiple drivers or operating software. Some, therefore, consider that existing regulatory frameworks could accommodate technology up to SAE level 4, albeit imperfectly.
Weigh the advantages, disadvantages, and limits to stretching existing regulatory frameworks to cover safe vehicle automation
Adapting existing frameworks may be preferable to creating new frameworks that may lock in a standard that is too high or too low. However, this carries risks. For example, the broadest interpretation of current regulations would view vehicles automated with SAE level 4 technologies as legal to operate on public roads today, despite safety concerns. Rather than the technological components, the difficulty is how to override automatic control safely at intermediate levels of automation where the driver remains ultimately responsible for safe operation. Under a permissive regulatory regime, the potential backlash in case of a serious incident could halt the development of automated trucking.
Consider data-led approaches for regulating vehicles with high automation levels
Applying a data-driven approach to regulating fully automated vehicles could provide a better governance framework for vehicle automation. It could potentially extend beyond type approval for ensuring safe operation of vehicles. Much of the underlying information required for regulating the various aspects of road-based freight transport relates to the geo-location of vehicles over time. Traditionally regulation has been fragmented with separate interventions covering safety, access to road networks, protection of road infrastructure, access to markets, and other factors. A more straightforward approach would be the tracking of automated freight vehicles and their performance across the network. Recent progress in mapping, sensor, and IT technologies makes such a solution feasible.
Consider government intervention to address labor issues if and where they arise
The automation of road freight vehicles could have a significant impact on the demand for truck drivers. The extent to which reduced demand will increase unemployment among drivers is open to discussion, given continuing driver shortages. Depending on the magnitude of any impact on labor, government interventions may need to be considered. This could, for example, provide support for retraining displaced drivers. As the driver’s role shifts away from purely driving to carrying out administrative tasks while on the truck, the driving profession could become more rewarding with automated road freight vehicles.