February 1, 2022
The future of cargo transport has arrived, bringing big questions.
Year after year, the trucking industry has the unfortunate distinction of ranking among the most dangerous occupations, with a death rate of 26.8 per 100,000 drivers—843 deaths in 2019, according to the National Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries. And estimates from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that crashes involving trucks killed 4,895 people in 2020.
In 2017, the first self-driving or autonomous trucks hit the market. Over 50% of small businesses project they’ll be using a fleet of driverless trucks within the next two decades. Now self-driving trucks are considered the future of commercial cargo transport.
Manufacturers and advocacy groups say self-driving trucks promise much greater safety and efficiency.
But this emerging and rapidly evolving technology raise many questions and concerns—from safety to how it will change the market to complex legal issues.
What do we mean when we talk about autonomous trucks and driverless technology?
Like aircraft that fly on autopilot with a pilot in the cockpit, at this time, self-driving trucks operating on public roads still have a driver in the cab. Driverless vehicles use GPS and sensors, including cameras and laser radar systems, which communicate with a computer to operate under certain conditions without a human driving them. A computer drives the truck, but the human driver can take over at any point, quickly turning off the driverless technology as needed. California is one state that allows this type of truck on the road right now, though in a limited capacity, for demonstration and testing purposes.
However, genuinely autonomous trucks operating without a human onboard are right around the corner. They’re already making “supervised” test runs in some states.
Driverless vehicles, in general, have a futuristic feel, but to the average motorist, the prospect of being on the road with a self-driving semi may sound somewhat terrifying. Still, the potential benefits are compelling.
Statistics show that driver error causes more than 90% of traffic accidents. Many factors can affect a driver’s judgment, reaction, and ability to handle the vehicle: distraction, inexperience, alcohol or drugs—and particularly in cargo transport, where timely deliveries are paramount—fatigue. The existing trucking industry is heavily regulated at the state and federal levels for precisely these reasons, particularly as accidents involving a big rig can be all the more dangerous.
The hope is that automation could reduce crashes by up to 80%.
But there are many potential pitfalls as well.
The advanced technology that runs autonomous vehicles introduces concerning variables of its own, including the potential for computer malfunction, programming problems, hacking/cyber-attacks, and lithium-ion battery fire.
Further, for all the human drivers’ risks, we also have amazing brains, incredible perception, and lightning reaction time. Removing the human element in favor of complete automation may eliminate human error, but it takes with it the benefit of human experience, engagement, intelligence, and split-second responsiveness.
Completely autonomous big rigs could encounter road or weather conditions they cannot adjust for fast enough—sharp turns, obstacles in the road, a nearby driver changing lanes unexpectedly. The immense size and weight of trucks make it difficult to stop or change direction quickly.
Studies have shown that today’s driverless vehicles confront an issue that requires human intervention about every 8 miles. Ironically, one of the problems with driver-assisted technology is that accidents occur when technology provides a false sense of security, and the driver becomes unengaged.
Besides safety, there’s the issue of how a shift to autonomous trucks could have an industry-wide economic impact: fewer jobs for truckers, trucking companies going out of business, far less demand for truck stops and traditional maintenance services, automakers unable to keep up with technological change, and so on.
Innovation has also gotten ahead of the law.
According to GovernmentTechnology.com, automated vehicle advocates and automakers are pressing Congress to pass legislation that ensures “rigorous safety standards” but enables “greater deployment of autonomous vehicles.”
Although existing laws apply in the meantime—and increasingly, state by state, new regulations governing self-driving vehicles are under consideration—AV-specific federal regulation and national guidelines regarding claims in such cases are still lacking. It’s unclear who can be held liable for death, injury, or damage in collisions involving automated technology or driverless trucks. The trucking companies? The automaker? The software developer? And there is minimal case law precedent.
Dealing with accidents involving trucks requires a strong understanding of the law, including state laws that impact the roadways; laws protecting drivers, passengers, and pedestrians; and the court system. Suits involving accidents with self-driving vehicles require an attorney with experience in this complex area of the law.
Aitken * Aitken * Cohn has extensive experience handling and litigating commercial trucking accident cases. Most recently, AAC’s trial team secured a $3.8 million settlement on behalf of a pedestrian who was violently struck from behind by a tractor-trailer. The defendant driver admitted that while in the course and scope of his job, he was distracted and did not see the woman while he attempted to make a U-turn.