On March 10th, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration held its 20th annual Analysis, Research, and Technology (ART) Forum, the first under the Biden presidency with a new change of officials. ART is used to discuss how technology is used to fulfill the FMCSA’s goals, namely minimizing truck crashes, and was especially fitting because they used Microsoft Teams to host ART virtually this year. They spoke of numerous topics throughout the meeting; here is a summary.
COVID-19 Meant Fewer Inspections
The combination of economic sluggishness with social distancing meant that fewer inspections were conducted throughout the year. From 2019 to 2020, total truck inspections conducted by the FMCSA and approved partners dropped from 375,419 inspections to 294,235.
April in particular, when the toilet paper runs had ended and layoffs were prevalent, was the hardest hit month by far, dropping from 32,107 to 3,710. Even the few months where inspections were up (January, February, and September) were not enough to round out the discrepancy.
Autonomous Trucking on the Table
The Trump administration did not give fully autonomous trucking much thought, and with how far away America is from removing the steering wheel, it is hard to blame them. Meera Joshi, the current acting FMCSA administrator, wants to put some focus on this slow-moving yet inevitable change to the industry, and how it may put drivers out of work.
“It is certainly a priority of this administration, this DOT [to work] with the Department of Labor to understand…the extremely real and broad impacts of automation on people’s livelihoods,” she said. “What are the opportunities, thinking about the now, for the shifting workforce? What are the training opportunities so the next generation has the jobs that [won’t] be replaced by automation? And what are the additional jobs that can be created through automation that can serve as the jobs for drivers of tomorrow that may not be available for drivers [today]?”
Automated trucks show some promise of being able to reduce collisions on the highway, but still have a long way to go before the human driver can be eliminated from the equation.
Effects of Hours-of-Service Changes
Changes to the hours-of-service regulations under President Trump and Secretary Elaine Chao have added some flexibility to driving schedules, and have resulted in fewer violations overall.
An interesting phenomenon that has appeared is that while 30-minute break violations have almost halved in rate since the implementation of changes, other HOS violations have had a minute uptick. Joe DeLorenzo, Joshi’s right-hand man, believes the small increases in various categories are due to fleets and drivers still learning the new rules.
There are currently no stated plans to reverse the changes.
ELD Mandate Impact
The ELD Mandate started in March 2018 and cranked into full gear in December 2019. This increase in enforcement has increased the number of false log violations, according to DeLorenzo. He stated at ART that he speculates that the number of violations has not gone up, but rather that the FMCSA has become better at noticing them because of how difficult it is to cheat an ELD compared to paper logs.
Virtual Inspections Almost Just as Good
DeLorenzo said the FMCSA had planned to do more virtual/off-site inspections as the technology became more capable, but that the coronavirus pandemic accelerated the transition.
DeLorenzo says that remote investigations have not had a damper on inspection quality, comparing a 92% violation rate for offsite audits to 91% for onsite comprehensive audits. At the same time, critical violation rates almost halved from comprehensive onsite audits to offsite, implying that some sneaky fleets are abusing the system for a pass.
The FMCSA wanted to use the Forum to explain how the Administration is using technology to help keep our roads safer, and to an extent, it has done just that. Through virtual inspections, they were able to still catch violations that otherwise would have gone unnoticed due to the lack of direct interaction from the coronavirus pandemic, as well as catching more hours-of-service violations with the help of ELDs. While autonomous trucking is still many years away, almost certainly beyond the service of the current leaders’ tenures, the FMCSA wants to welcome it with open arms and mitigate any resulting troubles that the technology may bring so that the safety benefits can make it a net positive change to the industry and society as a whole.
With all of the changing technological elements of the industry, the FMCSA certainly has a lot of work laid out in front of it.