Trucking accounts for over 70% of American freight. In 2017, the U.S Department of Transportation estimated that more than 49 million tons of goods valued at more than $53 billion is moved in trucks nationwide every day, and those numbers have only gone up since then. But despite the fact that more and more freight is being hauled, motorists may start seeing fewer truck drivers on the road. The reason? Autonomous trucks. Once a thing of the far-distant future, several commercial motor vehicle companies are pushing to make self-driving semis a reality.

Innovations in Automatic Technology

While the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is working towards achieving widespread adoption of Automatic Emergency Braking for commercial motor vehicles, other companies are working to innovate truck safety in a different way: with completely self-driving vehicles. One of the companies that pioneered this technology is Starsky Robotics. Founded in 2016 as an autonomous truck company, they first began publicly testing driverless trucks on closed roads in 2018, and then on the highways last summer. The first company to put an autonomous truck without a driver in the cab on the road, their achievements have been considered a major milestone by industry professionals and global tech firms alike. Although the company has since been shut down, the push for autonomous trucks is still going strong.

Starsky Robotics is not the only company that’s been working towards innovating the trucking business. Other automotive giants working to make autonomous trucks a reality include Waymo, Daimler, Aurora, Embark Trucks, and TuSimple. TuSimple, a San Diego-based company, is making big strides in the self-driving truck technology in particular. Over the summer, TuSimple announced that they are creating and implementing a network of autonomous trucks. Hillwood recently announced that TuSimple is setting up a logistics hub to be built at AllianceTexas’ Mobility Innovation Zone, where they plan to launch the technology in Texas and connect it to their autonomous freight network that presently stretches from Dallas to Arizona. Currently, their trucks drive themselves, but still carry a “safety driver” and a test engineer in the cab to monitor the truck. However, upon the completion of the hub in March 2021, they hope to remove the human element from their trucks, allowing for completely driverless transportation.

The Potential Impact of Autonomous Trucks

The American Trucking Association estimates that there are over 3.5 million drivers with a commercial motor vehicle license, with another 8.7 million working in the freight industry overall. Removing the need for drivers can majorly shake up the big rig business. Proponents of the self-driving truck industry say that autonomous trucks could be huge in mitigating risk for other drivers. Trucks and 18-wheelers are involved in thousands of crashes a year, resulting in many fatalities and even more injuries. Advocates for the self-driving truck industry insist that automating the process could greatly reduce risk because autonomous trucks can more easily travel during non-peak hours, and won’t need to struggle to find parking when off-duty. They also don’t get tired like humans do, which could prevent truck accidents caused by drowsy, drunk, or distracted driving.

But truck drivers argue just the opposite, saying that with driverless commercial motor vehicles comes a lot of unnecessary risk. Linda Allen, who has been a truck driver for over ten years and is a board member of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA), noted that there are a lot of unique situations that autonomous trucks may not be able to anticipate, which could be dangerous for other motorists. In an interview with CBS, she said that recently she came across a bad accident while driving her truck, and that a police officer had come out onto the scene to direct traffic. Drivers like Linda are not sure how a self-driving semi-truck would handle situations that the AI component cannot predict or adapt to such as cargo problems, law enforcement, and emergencies; there is concern that removing the human element behind the wheel could result in more 18-wheeler accidents in these kinds of circumstances.

Safety experts agree, noting that these companies are currently testing their driverless trucks on populated roads. Norita Taylor, another spokesperson for the OOIDA, said that truck drivers are concerned that “federal regulators are going to put on blinders and push for more technology as the answer to the industry’s problems without considering the negative impacts” that these technologies could have on the public. Furthermore, there are a lot of questions still left to be answered by these corporations. Because the technology is so new, much of it is proprietary; consequently, companies are hesitant to share their findings until they can get things right.

The disinclination to share data ultimately means that these companies are testing their driverless vehicles on public roads, with other motorists around. If the technology were to fail, this could lead to a serious truck accident, or even be fatal, similarly to the infamous self-driving Uber case from several years ago. Executives from TuSimple noted in an interview that they are not required by law to notify nearby residents when they plan to test these big rigs out or share data with any state department of transportation, and that no formal inspection process exists with the Arizona Department of Transportation.

Truck drivers are also worried about what this may mean for job opportunities. While cutting drivers would greatly reduce time needed to drive cross-country and majorly labor costs for many of these companies, financial experts anticipate that the rise of autonomous trucking would upset the economy, as hundreds of thousands of drivers would be displaced. It would likely also negatively impact all of the industries that rely on trucking to survive, such as rest stop workers, gas station owners, and other related businesses. Still, the push for autonomous trucks has continued on. While there is no certainty on when self-driving trucks will dominate the roads, one thing is sure: they’re definitely on their way.

If you or a loved one has been injured in an accident involving a truck, it’s critical that you identify the underlying cause(s) of the collision. Retaining an attorney who has experience successfully representing people injured in trucking accidents is imperative to ensure your rights are protected. Contact our Truck Accident Lawyers today to see how we can help. Call us at 713-224-9000, or fill out our contact form here.