Concerns about driverless vehicles range from communication between school buses and oncoming automated traffic to "automation complacency" when a human backup driver is involved.  -  Image: Canva

Concerns about driverless vehicles range from communication between school buses and oncoming automated traffic to "automation complacency" when a human backup driver is involved.

Image: Canva

As we close out 2023, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is due to release a proposal for managing the safe deployment of automated driving systems in commercial motor vehicles.

The U.S. Department of Transportation recently published a significant rulemaking report that indicated the FMCSA would put out the notice of proposed rulemaking on Dec. 29.

According to that USDOT report: “FMCSA proposes to amend certain Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSRs) to ensure the safe introduction of automated driving systems (ADS)-equipped commercial motor vehicles (CMVs) onto the nation’s roadways. The proposed changes to the CMV operations, inspection, repair, and maintenance regulations prioritize safety and security, promote innovation, foster a consistent regulatory approach to ADS-equipped CMVs, and recognize the difference between human operators and ADS.”

Automated Technology Yields School Transportation Industry Commentary

In February, FMCSA sought feedback from the public about:

  • Motor carriers operating Level 4 or 5 ADS-equipped CMVs, which don’t require a human driver on hand to take over.
  • Oversight for remote assistants.
  • Vehicle inspection and maintenance.

The National School Transportation Association (NSTA) in March filed its feedback with the FMCSA, stating: “At face value, NSTA agrees with the agency assessment of ADS levels 0-3, mainly that currently there does not appear to be a need to revise the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSRs) to address the integration of levels 0-3 equipment. This conclusion is mostly due to the fact that a licensed human CMV driver must be seated behind the wheel and ready to take control of these vehicles at all times to perform, or be ready to take over in dynamic driving tasks – when called upon. Alternatively, we understand that the focus of this notice revolves around Level 4 and 5 ADS-equipped CMVs because it is only at these levels that ADS can control all aspects of the dynamic driving task – without any expectation of an intervention from a human driver. Undoubtedly, this area causes the most consternation within our organization.”

The NSTA also raised concerns about ADS-equipped CMVs and their interactions with school buses, which operate on routes that include frequent stops as students board or disembark. Buses are equipped with flashing warning lights and stop arms, and ADS-CMVs “must be able to detect the presence of school children around the perimeter of the bus at pickup and drop off.”

With good reason, the NSTA doesn’t want the pursuit of shiny new technology – including driverless vehicles - to exacerbate the ongoing epidemic of illegal school bus passings.

“As such, with Level 4 and 5 ADS-CMVs having limited or no intervention from human drivers, the agency must ensure that these vehicles can safely navigate in and around school buses,” wrote Curt Macysyn, NSTA’s executive director. “As you know, school buses are already equipped with many safety systems that keep student passengers out of harm’s way, and a vital part of the development of these systems revolves around the development and enhancement of (vehicle-to-vehicle) communications. Right now, we cannot strictly depend upon V2V communication and internal technological enhancements to keep our students safe and out of harm’s way, however.”

The best bet, he wrote, is keeping a driver behind the wheel of an ADS-equipped vehicle as the regulatory standard.

NTSB Raises Concerns About "Automation Complacency"

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) also is concerned about the technology – even at lower levels, due to automation complacency.

The FMCSA indicated that it doesn’t think FMCSRs related to lower-level ADS technology need revision because a human must remain behind the wheel, which prompted NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy to write: “The implicit assumption of this statement is that the CMV driver will be unaffected by automation complacency and will take over control of the vehicle when the system fails, an assumption that is not supported by research or by the results of our investigations. Any system that relies on a human driver or operator as a fallback or to monitor performance of the system presents significant safety risks.”

Here's to hoping all these concerns are taken under consideration before we fill our roadways with driverless trucks putting our young passengers in peril.

Reach out to Wes Platt with your pupil transportation news at wes.platt@bobit.com.

About the author
Wes Platt

Wes Platt

Executive Editor

Wes Platt joined Bobit in 2021 as executive editor of School Bus Fleet Magazine. He writes and edits content about student transportation, school bus manufacturers and equipment, legislative issues, maintenance, fleet contracting, and school transportation technology - from classic yellow diesel buses to the latest EPA-funded electric, propane, and CNG vehicles.

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