By David Shepardson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. trucking trade group and truck maker Navistar International Corp (N:NAV) urged a U.S. Senate panel on Wednesday to include self-driving commercial trucks in proposed legislation intended to speed autonomous vehicles to market.
The House last week unanimously approved a bill to hasten the use of self-driving cars and bar states from blocking such vehicles. The bill applies only to vehicles under 10,000 pounds (4,536 kg). The Senate is considering a similar draft measure that could include large commercial trucks.
"It's important for industry to participate in the creation of advanced driving technologies now," said Navistar Chief Executive Troy Clarke in testimony before the Senate Commerce Committee. "Providing clarity on the legislative and regulatory front will allow us, truck manufacturers, to design and validate systems that meet the future needs of our customers."
Technology industry executives and policymakers are grappling with the possible impact of artificial intelligence and robotics on jobs and the economy as well as questions about potential safety issues.
American Trucking Associations President and Chief Executive Chris Spear said in testimony that it was "critical" that federal policies developed for this technology include all vehicles on U.S. roads.
Auto industry leaders have estimated that 3 million commercial truck jobs could eventually be at risk if self-driving vehicles replaced human drivers.
Spear and Clarke said they did not believe there would be a big near-term impact on jobs.
"Large scale displacement of drivers is not likely too happen, especially in the short and medium term," Clarke said.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao has said she is "very concerned" about the impact of self-driving cars on jobs.
The 1.4-million member International Brotherhood of Teamsters union is trying to convince Congress to reject new rules to speed self-driving truck deployment, warning they could cost hundreds of thousands of jobs and reduce road safety.
"It is essential that American workers are not treated as guinea pigs for unproven technologies that could put their lives at risk," Teamsters General Secretary Treasurer Ken Hall told the committee on Wednesday.
He argued that commercial trucks operate differently than passenger cars and any issues could cause more damage than those involving smaller vehicles.
Senator Gary Peters of Michigan, who has been working with Republicans to draft self-driving legislation, said at the hearing he did not support including commercial trucks and that safety and job impacts must be addressed.
Many Republican senators support including commercial trucks, as does Deborah Hersman, head of National Safety Council who testified at the hearing on Wednesday.
Senator John Thune, a Republican who chairs the panel, said trucking should be addressed in the legislation, but said no final decision had been made on commercial trucks. He said he hoped to work with Democrats "to strike the right balance."
Thune said Wednesday he hoped to introduce a bill and get committee approval by early October.
Self-driving proponents note that 94 percent of U.S. car crashes are the result of human error and argue self-driving cars could dramatically cut the 35,000 annual road deaths.
Tech firms and shipping companies are bullish on the prospects for self-driving trucks, with Tesla Inc (O:TSLA), Uber Technologies Inc [UBER.UL]'s Otto unit and Alphabet Inc's Waymo unit (O:GOOGL) working on automated trucks.
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