The Legal and Societal Implications of Self-Driving Trucks

Posted on Friday, March 9th, 2018 at 8:02 pm    

Autonomous trucking is a big deal these days. While many are enthusiastic advocates, others are concerned about what autonomous trucking would mean for society and the industry as a whole.

Teamsters Union Pushback

Several states are working on and passing laws regulating self-driving vehicles, with a relatively narrow focus on passenger vehicles. When the House of Representatives’ Energy and Commerce Committee approved a bill intended to accelerate the use of autonomous vehicles, essentially requiring all states to allow driverless vehicles, they explicitly excluded vehicles weighing more than 10,000 pounds and large commercial semi-trucks.1

This was in large part due to lobbying by the Teamsters, whose 1.4 million members are intent on protecting the jobs of truckers. Whether or not that’s in the best interest of the country and consumers is still being debated.

Approximately 70 percent of all goods in the U.S. reach their destination by truck. Feeding, clothing and supplying a country of more than 320 million people takes a veritable army of vehicles and truck drivers. According to numbers and estimates compiled by the American Trucking Association, the trucking industry is currently understaffed by approximately 50,000 drivers. If current retirement and industry employee flight trends continue, they forecast a shortage of 175,000 drivers by 2024.2

In an on-demand society such as ours, people don’t like shortages or having to pay extra for a product due to excessive shipping costs. There may be a very real demand for driverless shipping options within the next decade, regardless of union pushback.

Many companies developing autonomous commercial trucking vehicles sell these advancements with jobs in mind. Alden Woodrow, the product lead at Uber Advanced Technologies Group’s self-driving trucks team, sees many potential employment opportunities in an autonomous trucking industry that would require a significant human-powered logistics and oversight component.3

How Soon Will We See Autonomous Trucks on the Roads?

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has a multi-tiered ranking system for self-driving vehicles and their capabilities. A Level 4 vehicle would be able to operate autonomously except under specific conditions such as severe weather or navigating road construction. The executive chairman of U.S. Xpress, Inc., one of the nation’s largest trucking companies, believes we could see Level 4 autonomous commercial trucking by 2020 or 2021.

Other industry experts are more conservative with their estimates. Many large trucking and transportation companies, such as Daimler Trucks North America, are also pursuing autonomous shipping, but are less bullish on timelines. Daimler’s director of advanced engineering, Derek Rotz, listed off a litany of potential complications a human operator regularly or potentially may face. Road debris, worn lane markings and mechanical emergencies such as a tire blowout are just a few of the concerns his company is seeking to address.

Would Autonomous Trucking Make Highways Safer or More Dangerous?

Most industry experts and studies are inclined to believe autonomous vehicles, including driverless commercial trucks, will make the nation’s roads safer. Removing instances of human error from the equation may significantly reduce accidents.

Autonomous trucks on highways also don’t have to deal with pedestrians, city traffic and other complexities with which driverless passenger vehicles in cities have to contend more frequently.

In one article, a professional truck driver with 40 years of experience is quoted as saying, “This system often drives better than I do.”4 He is currently serving as a safety backup driver for commercial autonomous trucks being developed by Otto, a San Francisco-based autonomous vehicle company acquired by Uber in 2016.

For example, all of Otto’s current autonomous systems relegate their trucks to the right lane for the entirety of their journey. During road tests, a professional driver is in the cab and capable of taking control at a moment’s notice when debris is in the road or the truck is approaching a construction zone.

There’s also the matter of driver’s hours. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration conducted a Large Truck Crash Causation Study (LTCCS) which found that drivers were fatigued in 13 percent of commercial vehicle accidents. Driving too fast was cited in 23 percent of accidents, lack of familiarity with the roadway in 22 percent, over-the-counter drug use in 17 percent and inadequate surveillance in 14 percent.5 All of these causes are related to driver performance, and it’s conceivable that many of those risks would be significantly reduced were an autonomous, never-tiring and never distracted computer controlling the wheel.

During 2015, 118 fatalities and 2,367 injuries were attributed to commercial trucking accidents in Alabama alone.6 How the use of autonomous commercial vehicles affects commercial trucking accident statistics will be a very telling factor once the data is available.

Although it’s impossible to predict what the future will bring, many autonomous vehicle designers and manufacturers are clearly taking their time developing technology with a big emphasis on safety. Some of this technology is likely to eliminate or significantly reduce the risk of human error. That being said, there’s no crystal ball that guarantees new issues or problems won’t arise with the expanded use of this technology. Only the future will tell.

Have You or a Loved One Been Injured Due to a Commercial Trucking Accident?

Accidents between commuter and commercial vehicles often result in severe or even deadly consequences for the passengers in the smaller, less heavily protected vehicle. Injuries resulting from these accidents can drastically change lives and leave people with years of rehab and seemingly insurmountable medical debts. If you or a loved one has been injured in such a trucking accident, it may be in your best interest to consult with experienced commercial vehicle accident attorneys. Call (205) 324-1212 to schedule a free case evaluation with the accident injury attorneys at Farris, Riley & Pitt, LLP.


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