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NAFA: Self-driving rigs can 'fill in gaps'

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The transportation industry has begun testing autonomous and semi-autonomous trucks, but officials insist driverless rigs post no threat to driver jobs.

Phillip Russo, CEO, NAFA Fleet Management Association.
Phillip Russo, CEO, NAFA Fleet Management Association.

Phillip Russo, CEO of the NAFA Fleet Management Association, a nonprofit organization in Middlesex County, says with the shortage of drivers that currently exists, the introduction of semi-autonomous vehicles and other innovations will be beneficial.

“It will fill in the gaps to move goods,” Russo said. “I do not think it will impact employment. Drivers retire and quit.”

NAFA is working with legislatures, manufacturers and insurance companies to determine which party is responsible for which aspects of autonomous vehicles.

“We are making our way through the noise so our members can map out our future with this mobility technology,” Russo said. For various reasons, he said he also recommends some employees telecommute, share vehicles or use public transportation.

New Jersey Motor Truck Association Executive Director Gail Toth said truck drivers’ jobs are safe for years to come because they perform services machines can’t, such as inspecting and unloading cargo.

“There are a lot of people who use trucks to do business,” Toth said. “Even if technology is perfected, I do not think anyone is prepared to see an 80,000-pound vehicle going down the road by itself.”

But she noted driverless vehicles are already being used in ports and quarries.

“A lot of autonomous vehicles are extraordinary from a safety perspective, yet the driver is needed to interact with customers, refuel and inspect the vehicle,” Toth said.

She wonders how a self-driving car would react even if it hit a pothole.

“I do not know if the technology has caught up to the human factor,” Toth said. “When you talk about millions of truck drivers, we cannot do without them.”

A self-driving Uber car killed a woman crossing a road in Tempe, Ariz., last month. The car had a human driver but he was looking down in the moments leading to the crash, according to video footage. After the crash, Uber cancelled its testing of autonomous vehicles in Arizona and other locations. 

“I do not think we will be a society where we are like the Jetsons, puttering around in someone else’s vehicles,” Russo said. “Until the idea of the vehicle not being part of your identity is gone, people are going to own vehicles.”

Meantime, NAFA has been active in driver education about dangers such as distracted driving.

“We have joined the National Safety Council to put out a strict policy that we uphold against distracted driving,” Russo said. “If NAFA employees are involved in an accident that was caused by distracted driving, they lose their job. It is pounding home that message — the dangers of distracted driving are like drunken driving.”

Toward that end, NAFA is holding its annual conference this month in California. It will feature seminars on mobility, distracted driving and planning for disasters.

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David Hutter

David Hutter

David Hutter grew up in Darien, Conn., and covers higher education, transportation and manufacturing for NJBIZ. He can be reached at dhutter@njbiz.com.

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