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Driverless Trucks May Be the Future of Freight

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It’s 2018, and while we may not have the robot maids and flying cars The Jetsons promised us, vehicle automation technology is moving full-steam ahead. We see occasional news articles about tech companies like Uber or Google testing driverless vehicles, but many of us really don’t understand much about the concept.

Driverless cars are in the news more often than driverless trucks, probably due to the average consumer’s interest in a future of working or sleeping during the commute. We covered the ins and outs of driverless-car liability in a previous blog, but now, greater strides are being made on the commercial side, because trucking companies are eager to capitalize on improved technology.

According to a Transport Topics report, tech startup Embark’s self-driving truck recently completed a huge milestone—a coast-to-coast test run. The modified Peterbilt truck traveled 2,500 miles, from Los Angeles to Jacksonville, along the length of Interstate 10 across the southern United States. It took five days. Embark’s current system is considered “Level 2 automation,” but the company’s goal is to eventually reach “Level 4 automation”: where no driver is required at all for specific routes.

The truck used a combination of sensors and self-driving software to successfully handle nearly all of the highway driving. A human driver was behind the wheel at all times to watch the road and take over when necessary. But which is safer…the trucker, or the smarttruck?

How Driverless Trucks Will Affect Us

Bad news first—testing revolutionary technology like self-driving trucks involves some serious trial and error. This process puts other drivers at risk, assuming the truck is being tested on an active road. For example, a self-driving shuttle in Las Vegas crashed on its first day on the road, but luckily did not seriously injure anyone.

The good news definitely outweighs the bad, though. In case you didn’t know, vehicle crashes, including commercial truck crashes, are almost always our fault. Approximately 90% of motor vehicle crashes are caused at least in part by human error. Self-driving trucks would theoretically eliminate the possibility of an overworked, fatigued truck driver who makes a dire mistake and starts a multi-vehicle highway collision.

In addition, you may just see your package at the door a few days sooner. Autonomous trucks could eliminate the human element of truck driving that slows down the delivery process, a.k.a. eating, sleeping, and time off. This increased efficiency could trickle down to the consumer. Who doesn’t want their impulse-buy bread maker waiting on their doorstep a bit sooner?

How Driverless Trucks Will Affect Truck Drivers

When the “oohs” and “ahs” surrounding the technology subside, we see an unfortunate glimpse of truck drivers’ future. Whenever a new form of commercial automation becomes mainstream, workers have a right to become worried. (Remember the Industrial Revolution?) While driverless trucking may still feel a long way off to the average person, career truck drivers are anxious.

Over 3.2 million people in the United States are currently employed as delivery and heavy truck drivers. Goldman Sachs economists predict that all driving industries could lose up to 300,000 jobs a year to automation. However, many companies are planning scenarios that involve various degrees of human driver involvement. While the eventual goal may be to remove drivers from trucks entirely, that level of technology is still decades away.

As we know all too well, long-haul truck driving is already a dangerous industry for everyone on the road. Throwing automation into the mix could be an invitation for truck companies to further take advantage of truck drivers. According to Wired, because of driverless technology, truck drivers are at risk for dangerously long shifts, unfairly low wages, and other abuses because of companies’ claims that the job requires less effort and attention. Any consequences, of course, will trickle down to the rest of us who share the road with truckers.

How the Law Views Driverless Trucks

So, how are automated driving systems being regulated by the government? Again, the answer is complicated. In 2017, Illinois passed a law that prevents local authorities from enacting or enforcing ordinances that prohibit the use of vehicles equipped with Automated Driving Systems. It also defined what an automated-driving-system-equipped vehicle is under the law. Essentially, this law prevents local cities from banning the use of self-driving vehicles, and it goes into effect on June 1, 2018 (National Conference of State Legislatures).

Federally, the Senate passed a bill in October 2017 that lets automakers test their driverless vehicles with little to no hindrance from state governments. The vote essentially secured a future for further development of autonomous vehicles.

That’s about it, folks. State and federal laws have acknowledged self-driving trucks’ right to exist, but have yet to regulate the industry with any detail. And while none of us will be sitting behind the wheel of a driverless car very soon, if you’re educated about the future of the commercial trucking industry, you’ll be one step ahead.

Until that wonderful day when fully automated vehicles end all traffic accidents and injuries, we’ll be standing by as your Belleville truck accident attorneys. If you have any questions, or recently suffered an accident with a semi and need help facing down the trucking company for fair compensation, we can help. Call Hipskind & McAninch, LLC, at (618) 641-9189. We’ll give you a free consultation with no time limit, and either take your case ourselves or give you all the legal advice you need for your situation.

In the meantime, we recommend staying cautiously optimistic about driverless semi-trucks.

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