Self-Driving Semis May Soon Dominate Long-Haul Trucking
“This technology isn’t a question of if but when.”
Pilot programs for fully-autonomous trucks are racking up hundreds of miles on public highways in several states, primarily throughout the sunbelt, where favorable weather conditions and friendly regulations encourage testing.
Examples: TuSimple, the first automated trucking company to go public, hauls “freight from Phoenix to Tucson every day in autonomy,” Jim Mullen, chief administrative and legal officer, told Fortune magazine. Waymo, initially the technology brain behind Google’s automated vehicle program, recently announced that it would test Freightliner semis on public freeways across Dallas and Phoenix. And Plus, another provider of self-driving truck systems claims it has tested its autonomous trucks in 17 states.
No need to panic quite yet, however. Nearly all road tests of fully-automated semis today include a human safety driver in the cab, ready to take the controls if something goes wrong. But the ultimate goal remains: Driverless robot trucks on U.S. roads within the next decade or sooner. “From our view — and what seems to be the broader industry — this technology isn’t a question of if but when,” Andrew Culhane, chief strategic officer for Torc Robotics, told the trade publication FleetOwner.
Weighing the Pluses and Minuses
Supporters of turning over the wheel of a semi to a computer say this will make our roads safer. They point out that human error causes most highway crashes, including an average of 4,000 people killed each year in truck accidents since 2016. Business interests see driverless freight hauling as key to addressing supply chain issues and a national shortage of truck drivers. Trucking companies see big profit in replacing drivers with computers that can run a truck for 17 hours straight without a break.
But many safety experts say NOT SO FAST, questioning whether we should test 80,000-pound trucks alongside the driving public. Case in point: The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is now looking into TuSimple after a tractor-trailer using the company’s driverless technology suddenly veered off an Arizona highway and slammed into a cement barricade. A video of the crash was shared on YouTube by a company whistleblower.
And what about the drivers that will be displaced by driverless trucks? Industry proponents say drivers will still be needed for “final mile” routes where the use of automated trucks is more challenging. They add that working closer to home will significantly improve the grind of long-haul trucking. Unions are not buying these rosy predictions, citing studies showing driverless technology killing up to 500,000 jobs. And trucking companies already have a reputation for pushing their drivers to the physical, emotional, and financial brink.
What Happens If There’s a Crash?
One other significant wrinkle yet to be ironed out by regulators and lawmakers is the question of liability: Who is responsible if a driverless truck is involved in a crash that causes injuries or deaths? Is it the company that manufactured the autonomous truck? Is it the company that programs, installs, and monitors the driverless technology? Is it the trucking company that owns the truck? Is it all three?
These are pivotal questions as the legal action required to bring a claim against a truck manufacturer, or a software company is much more complex than pursuing the trucking company.