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  • Writer's pictureARI Media

DOT may not be ready to take on automation safety

A government watchdog report has warned that the U.S. Department of Transportation has not fully assessed whether its workforce has the skills needed to oversee automation in the trucking and rail sectors.

The report was conducted by the U.S. Government Accountability Office and delivered on Friday to Congress. It acknowledged that DOT, over the last four years, has identified many of the skills cited by private industry groups — including the American Trucking Associations and Women in Trucking — as important for overseeing automated technologies, such as regulatory expertise, engineering and data analysis.

“However, DOT did not survey staff or assess skill gaps in data analysis or cybersecurity positions important to automated technology oversight,” the report stated. “As a result, DOT lacks critical information needed to identify skill gaps and ensure key relevant staff are equipped to oversee the safety of these technologies now and in the future.”

GAO selected three modal administrations within DOT to include in its review: the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the Federal Railroad Administration. GAO’s assessment comes at a time that is particularly critical for the three agencies as they come under increasing pressure to oversee and regulate safety as it relates to automated trucks and trains.

“As more vehicle functions become automated, and therefore controlled by computer systems, the need for DOT to employ staff skilled in varied fields of engineering will continue to increase,” the report emphasized.

Automated technologies in use and in development. Image: GAO

FMCSA, for example, may require engineers who understand the software that controls automatic emergency braking systems in commercial trucks. In addition, future requests for waivers or exemptions from federal safety regulations by commercial trucking companies may require FMCSA to employ engineers who understand capabilities and performance limitations of emerging automated technologies to help the agency decide whether to approve or deny such requests, GAO noted.

Officials interviewed by the GAO said another problem in staffing up to better assess automation safety is having to compete with private industry for positions. In particular, FRA was having a difficult time hiring senior technical staff for the Office of Safety’s positive train control team, “given the private sector’s high demand for such skills, ability to offer higher pay and the comparatively lengthy federal hiring process.”

In terms of future staffing gaps, DOT’s human resources department reported that nearly one-third of DOT’s 55,000-person workforce, including nearly one-third of NHTSA’s engineering workforce, is eligible to retire in the next five years.

With concern growing on the cybersecurity front – including recent hacking at trucking companies – GAO’s review uncovered critical gaps at DOT. “Although both stakeholders and DOT officials we interviewed identified cybersecurity as important to automated technology oversight, the department of human resources only surveyed cybersecurity staff in those occupations that ensure the security of DOT’s internal networks and systems,” according to the report. “Therefore, the department of human resources could not determine if DOT has the cybersecurity skills needed to oversee the safety of automated technologies.”

President-elect Joe Biden issued a statement on Thursday, in response to a recent cybersecurity breach affecting government agencies and private companies, that he would make cybersecurity “a top priority at every level of government.”

GAO made four recommendations to DOT’s director of human resources based on its review:

  • Complete efforts to identify all cybersecurity occupations across the agency and incorporate those related to overseeing the cybersecurity of automated technologies into its workforce planning efforts.

  • Assess skill gaps in key occupations that are involved in overseeing the safety of automated technologies.

  • Regularly measure the progress of strategies implemented to close skill gaps — such as on an annual basis — and ensure modal administrations offer training to close those gaps.

  • Collect and analyze information on the effectiveness of recruiting strategies, such as special payment authorities, in attracting staff to occupations that oversee the safety of automated technologies.

DOT agreed with three of the four recommendations, pushing back on the recommendation that it conduct a skills assessment each year, asserting that “every three years is sufficient.”

In response, GAO reiterated the need for more frequent assessments because every three years “does not provide the department with interim information on the progress of strategies implemented to close those gaps.”

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