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March 2, 2017 12:00 AM, EST
ATA's Chris Spear Calls for Industry to Embrace Technology
Spear in Nashville by John Sommers II for TT
Spear (left) in Nashville by John Sommers II for Transport Topics; in Phoenix by Seth Clevenger/Transport Topics

Speaking at a pair of industry conferences, American Trucking Associations President Chris Spear addressed the federation’s efforts to tap into technological innovation and work with the Trump administration to achieve policy goals.

At trucking technology supplier Omnitracs’ user conference Feb. 27 in Phoenix, Spear said the industry should embrace opportunities to improve safety and efficiency through automated driving and other technologies.

A day later at the Technology & Maintenance Council’s annual meeting in Nashville, Tennessee, he said President Trump is not beholden to Washington, and that it is important for the trucking industry to attempt to understand him.

“The only people he is beholden to are the people who voted for him,” Spear said. “We need to understand his agenda, and that’s difficult. It doesn’t come in the form of 140 characters, and it doesn’t come from 77-minute press conferences.”

But Spear said the believes the president will “go down his checklist” and “do everything he campaigned for.”

“I look for this president to unleash the private sector,” Spear said. … “I don’t look for mandates, I look for innovation.”

Contrary to some of the “hype” about driverless trucks, Spear said he’s not concerned that automated driving technology will displace drivers.

“This is really driver-assist technology, not driverless technology,” he said. “We need to focus on that reality.”

In fact, the automated trucks have the potential to help drivers, Spear said, by enabling them to move freight more efficiently, learn additional skills and potentially earn more pay.

“I’m not threatened by technology. I think we need to embrace it,” Spear said. “It’s a catalyst to making our industry better, and as a result America stronger, and our economy even better.”

Spear said he believes the widespread adoption of autonomous vehicle technology is at least 20 to 25 years away, but reiterated his stance that trucking “must take its seat at the table” to help shape the development of this technology and its regulatory framework.

He also predicted that trucking will lead the move toward automation ahead of the passenger car market, which could find it challenging to convince buyers to pay a premium for automated driving capabilities.

The trucking market, however, stands to benefit from improved safety, reduced fuel consumption and emissions and potentially even less traffic congestion. If the technology can generate that value proposition, carriers will invest in it, Spear said.

“We could accelerate and adopt this technology faster than any other mode out there,” he said. “That’s a message we need to be carrying to key decision-makers. … They need to be focused on us first. We’re the test bed. We’re the innovators.”

Regarding the new political landscape, Spear said President Trump is unique in that he has come to Washington “owing nobody anything.”

“This president is pretty much a freelancer, and you’ve seen that in his behavior,” he said.

While it’s easy to be distracted by Trump’s proclivity to respond to any opposition with an onslaught of tweets, the industry should focus squarely on his policy agenda, Spear said.

“If we can take the time to filter all that noise out, and focus on the opportunities that lie ahead with this president, and the fact that he’s not loyal to anybody in Washington, we could put some pretty big wins on the board, and that excites me and my team,” he said.

In particular, Spear cited Trump’s call for a $1 trillion, 10-year infrastructure bill.

“We haven’t seen anything like that since Eisenhower,” he said.

Spear also said he expects the federal government’s upcoming electronic logging device mandate to go into effect without delay, noting that it was included in the MAP-21 transportation bill passed by a Republican Congress.

“I firmly believe this rule will be the law of land, in full force and effect, come December 2017,” he said. “I’m very excited about that. … It’s taking our industry forward.”

In a question-and-answer session following his TMC speech, Spear said he’s optimistic that new Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt brings a “healthy perspective” on environmental policy.

“He’s certainly more grounded in terms of the impacts that regulations and policy have on industry growth,” Spear said.

Spear said he is hopeful that the new EPA boss can “level the playing field, preserve interstate commerce and not allow the California Air

Clevenger reported from Phoenix; Miller from Nashville