Will Self-Driving Trucks Make Our Roads Safer or More Dangerous?

Sep 27, 2018
by Adler Markoff & Associates

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    Will Self-Driving Trucks Make Our Roads Safer or More Dangerous?

    Self-driving technology is already available in consumer vehicles, and trucking companies are eager to leverage this technology for potential profit. A potential switch to autonomous trucks could save the trucking industry billions of dollars, but it might also make our roadways more dangerous, at least according to some highway safety experts.

    Keep reading to learn how self-driving commercial trucks could impact the safety of other drivers, passengers, and pedestrians on our nation’s city streets and interstates. 

    The Pros and Cons of Self-Driving Trucks

    Lobbyists and other industry insiders claim self-driving trucks can offer numerous safety benefits, while critics argue they create unsafe and potentially life-threatening situations for other motorists. To understand these arguments, let’s examine how self-driving technology can impact several of the key factors that often contribute to deadly truck accidents.

    Truck Driver Fatigue

    Proponents of autonomous trucks believe these vehicles will allow drivers to get extra rest in the rear of their cabin while the truck continues down the road. This extra rest for drivers, they argue, will increase efficiency on trucking routes and leave truckers better prepared to drive when they return to the wheel.

    Currently, federal hours-of-service (HOS) rules limit truckers to no more than 11 hours of driving during a 14-hour period. In addition, after a shift, drivers must rest for 10 straight hours before resuming their place in the cab. Unfortunately, many trucking companies pressure their drivers to break these rules and drive extra-long shifts, leaving those drivers fatigued and more likely to cause a crash.

    Recently, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) adopted anti-coercion guidelines designed to keep trucking companies from pressuring drivers to violate HOS rules. However, it’s not clear that those guidelines have made a significant impact.

    As an example, USA Today published a story in 2017 that uncovered numerous HOS violations among trucking companies in southern California. According to the article, these companies pressured their employees to work 20-hour days, six days per week. The employees received threats of decreased income, suspension, and even termination and loss of their trucks if they failed to comply. USA Today also established links between this pattern of coercion and several deadly trucking accidents across Los Angeles.

    However, even though highway safety advocates agree that fatigue and HOS violations are serious problems in the trucking industry, many of them doubt that self-driving trucks provide a viable solution. While trucking companies will be eager to claim that the extra rest fulfills truckers’ HOS obligations, some experts doubt that drivers will be able to sleep restfully while their 80,000-pound 18-wheeler rumbles down the freeway at 70 miles per hour with no one at the helm. And the lack of quality sleep could leave drivers unprepared and dangerously fatigued when it’s time to return behind the wheel.

    The “Human Element” and Its Role in Truck Accidents

    According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), commercial trucks are involved in roughly 350,000 wrecks each year. In 2015 alone, 3,900 people died in crashes involving large trucks. And the IIHS reports that almost 90% of fatal truck accidents are caused, either directly or indirectly, by “driver-related issues.”

    Since one possible plan, at least initially, is to have self-driving trucks operate during off-peak hours when traffic is at its lowest, advocates of self-driving trucks believe these vehicles will begin by traveling on relatively empty roads. With no driver behind the wheel and few other drivers on the road, this should reduce the “human element” of error that causes so many crashes.

    Of course, the counter-argument is that skilled truck drivers are a crucial part of highway safety. The same “human element” that causes many wrecks can also prevent potential disasters when experienced drivers rapidly react to unexpected obstacles such as a deer crossing the road, a bicyclist failing to follow the law, or a family changing a tire on the shoulder of the freeway.

    Steve Mitgang, CEO of the trucking safety company SmartDrive, has spent years helping make the roads safer for all motorists, and he has worked extensively with autonomous vehicles. Mitgang says that the companies who create self-driving systems still have to solve a range of safety issues before driverless vehicles can become a fixture on our roads.

    “As we go from engineers making a car move forwards and backwards, left and right, to operating in the real world, we have to decide the key criteria for safety and efficiency,” Mitgang says. “[We have to answer the question:] How do these things operate in the real world?”

    Self-Driving Trucks and Legal Liability

    While widespread use of self-driving trucks is probably still years away (and might not ever come about), analysts and attorneys say they’re concerned that our current liability laws regarding autonomous vehicles aren’t adequate. In particular, the current laws don’t provide any clear avenue for justice for those victims who get hit by self-driving vehicles, which is a major concern.

    Traditionally, when a truck driver causes a wreck, the victim can potentially sue the driver, their employer, and even the company who hired the employer to ship the goods. When you remove the driver from the equation, however, it becomes much more difficult to determine liability and assess negligence.

    The most reasonable solution would be to let victims hold truck manufacturers accountable when their self-driving systems cause a wreck, but the current law doesn’t allow this. In fact, a U.S. House panel and a Senate committee both recently approved legislation that expressly bans holding self-driving truck manufacturers accountable for wrecks. The bill, named the AV Start Act, has stalled since it reached the Senate floor and is still waiting on an official vote.

    Even though this bill remains at a standstill, it’s concerning that members of both the House and Senate have already approved legislation that eliminates a victim’s right to sue when they suffer injuries in an accident with a self-driving truck.

    According to Ed Walters, a professor of robotics law at Georgetown Law and Cornell Tech, this legislation could easily create situations where victims have no realistic option except to agree to unfavorable private arbitration proceedings, with the arbiter chosen by the truck manufacturer.

    “The nightmare scenario is that someone is hurt because of a [self-driving technology] defect and it’s dealt with through a confidential arbitration proceeding that nobody knows about,” says Walters, “and then more people are hurt because no one found out about it.”

    Regardless of your opinion on the overall safety of autonomous vehicles, one fact should be beyond dispute: robbing citizens of their right to hold negligent parties accountable when they suffer severe injuries encourages bad behavior from corporations and places ordinary drivers at risk.

    Injured in a Truck Accident in Oklahoma? Contact AMA Law for Help

    Getting hit by a tractor-trailer or other large truck is a terrifying experience that often leads to life-changing consequences. However, if you’ve been injured in a truck wreck, you don’t have to face the aftermath alone.

    If you or a loved one has been involved in a truck accident in Oklahoma, please contact the team at AMA Law today by calling (405) 607-8757 or completing our brief online contact form. Our attorneys have years of experience handling complex truck crash cases, and we work with an intimate knowledge of the trucking industry and the complex rules that govern it. We offer free, no-obligation consultations for injured victims, and we handle all personal injury cases on a “no recovery, no fee” basis, which means you’ll never have to worry about how to pay for our services.

    Depending on the nature of your case, various statutes of limitations may apply, so please reach out today to discuss your legal options.


    Banks, S. (2017, October 4). Examining the benefits, risks of the autonomous truck. FreightWaves. Retrieved from https://www.freightwaves.com/news/2017/10/4/examining-the-benefits-risks-of-the-autonomous-truck

    della Cava, M. (2018, March 22). A trucker asleep in the cab? Self-driving trucks could make that happen; some say, no way. USA Today. Retrieved from https://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/news/2018/03/22/trucking-self-driving-uber-google-tesla-sleep-safety/426651002/

    Murphy, B. (2017, December 28). Asleep at the wheel: Companies risk lives by putting sleep-deprived port truckers on the road. USA Today. Retrieved from https://www.usatoday.com/pages/interactives/news/rigged-asleep-at-the-wheel/

    Premack, R. (2018, July 12). One of the biggest problems facing self-driving trucks has little to do with the technology. Business Insider. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/autonomous-trucks-self-driving-trucks-laws-2018-7

    The content provided here is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice on any subject. 

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