New DOT rules address automated vehicle safety, but the risks are probably too great for that technology to be applied to tanker trucks.
While the U.S. Department of Transportation recently issued rules on the testing and deployment of automated vehicles, it is unlikely you’ll see an automated vacuum truck on a street or highway near you.
Brian Amthor, executive vice president of Amthor International, says he believes automated tanker trucks would be unsafe. “There is too much that could possibly go wrong if the tanker malfunctions. You could have a tanker with propane or septic waste crash and spill. Our industry is also very hands-on — you need a person to drive and handle any pumping duties.”
The DOT rules came out last month in response to the technology and auto companies working on self-driving vehicles. They put into place a 15-point safety assessment to help companies such as Google, Tesla and the Big Three auto manufacturers as they develop and begin testing self-driving vehicles. The rules also outline a clear distinction between federal and state rule responsibilities and what new regulatory tools and statutory authorities policymakers can consider in the future.
“Automated vehicles have the potential to save thousands of lives, driving the single biggest leap in road safety that our country has ever taken,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx says in the statement announcing the new rules. “This policy is an unprecedented step by the federal government to harness the benefits of transformative technology by providing a framework for how to do it safely.”
Current Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards do not address automated vehicle technologies, making some change necessary. Since writing standards can take years to develop, Foxx says the new policy increases transparency as the DOT works with manufacturers to make sure safety issues are addressed as vehicles are developed. He added that current safety equipment, including air bags and seatbelts, were once seen as controversial when first introduced.
“This is the first in a series of proactive approaches, including the release of a rule on vehicle-to-vehicle communications, which will bring lifesaving technologies to the roads safely and quickly while leaving innovators to dream up new safety solutions,” Foxx continues.
While Amthor says it is challenging to find drivers for tanker trucks, self-driving vehicles are not the answer.
“Would you want to be on the highway and look over and see a propane truck without a driver next to you? That’s a frightening thought,” he says. “I definitely do not want to put my name on a self-driving truck. Technology is growing so much, but that’s not always a good thing.”
Manufacturers are making changes so their trucks are easier to drive, which may attract more drivers, Amthor says. “We’re going more toward automatic transmissions since there are few people who can drive stick.”
Manufacturers are also getting drivers more involved in the design process. “We’re designing trucks around the drivers and listening to what they are looking for,” he says. “It’s important to keep drivers happy and companies know that.”