Arkansas has become a hub for trying out new transportation options. (See Walmart, J.B. Hunt Take Lead in Driverless Technology.)
The state has proved itself open-minded about technological advances, as shown in 2017 when it passed a law allowing truck platooning, in which a second 18-wheeler follows closely behind a lead truck so each can use driver-assisted technology.
“If you look at where the customers are for this sort of stuff, it is Arkansas, perhaps more so than anywhere else,” said Cyrus Sigari, co-founder of technology investment firm Up Partners and chairman of the state’s Future Mobility Council. The council was appointed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson in February to help the state figure out how to help the growing electric and autonomous vehicle industries.
“What is exciting about our work on the Mobility Council is our job is to arm the governor and Legislature with the world’s leading policy recommendations to ensure that companies that come to Arkansas with the latest and greatest autonomy technology have a business environment where they are welcomed,” Sigari said.
Sigari said he couldn’t talk much about the state’s regulatory needs until the council submits its report to Hutchinson in November.
Council member Shannon Newton, the president of the Arkansas Trucking Association, said she doesn’t expect autonomous technology to solve the trucking industry’s struggles with driver shortages.
The American Trucking Associations has said that there is a shortage of 80,000 drivers nationwide. That gap could hit 160,000 by 2030, so trucking companies’ interest in driverless trucks is understandable; that doesn't mean they will be a panacea.
Newton said technology would be best used to help drivers, not replace them. In some cases involving truckers sidelined by physical or medical limitations, technology could make it possible for them to become or remain drivers.
“In the realm of addressing the driver shortage and the place for technology, it aids that,” Newton said. “We could alleviate concerns through technology applications; the truck knows how to come to a safe stop if the driver has a seizure. All of those [disqualifying] things are shrinking the pool of people who may be able to drive a truck. I would hope that opens or broadens the pool from which we can attract individuals to become truck drivers. In my opinion, that is the connection between autonomous technology and driver-assist technology and the driver shortage.”
There are also the regulatory hurdles. In most of the pilot programs underway, states or the federal government have had to grant waivers for the trials to proceed. TuSimple of San Diego recently announced it had completed an 80-mile route with no one in the cab. It had escort vehicles leading and trailing, and a law enforcement officer was also following.
“I don’t think the regulatory and liability [aspects] and public opinion are not going to evolve at the pace the technology is evolving,” Newton said. “The council is looking at making sure the legislation here is consistent with the technology that exists, and there aren’t laws that might limit particular applications. There are some things we need to go back and make sure it is inclusive of all types of technology.”
Jami Cook, the secretary of the Arkansas Department of Public Safety, said she isn’t a technological expert and could understand why people would be startled to see a driverless truck cruising down the interstate.
"Knowledge is power,” said Cook, a council member. “As we learn more about these autonomous vehicles and what they are capable of and the safety precautions that are built in, we also have to provide the education for the public and our police officers. Otherwise, we are always going to be skeptical. I think the technology is promising and exciting, and I’m excited to learn about it. I’m not ready to see them up and down the interstate quite yet, but we will."