Automated Semi-Trucks Are Coming. Are They Safe?
Texas will be the first state to deploy driverless commercial trucks.
Fully automated commercial semi-trucks are coming soon to a highway near you, but many safety advocates have concerns. Currently, all “self-driving” vehicles are required to have a driver present to monitor the vehicle’s function. However, many states are allowing research, test, and pilot programs for fully automated vehicles. While it may be a while before this technology is available to the average consumer, you may start seeing driverless freight trucks on the road as early as 2023.
The Future of Automated Trucks
Plans for testing automated trucks with fewer safety drivers are already underway in China. The first trial will include a fleet with drivers in the first and last trucks, with driverless trucks in between. According to Utopiolot, the commercial vehicle developer behind the trucks that will be used, the trucks will be able to follow each other at a specified interval, change lanes, and brake automatically.
In the United States, Texas is the state at the forefront of the testing and deployment of automated trucks. While there have been some driverless tests conducted in Arizona, the trucks set to hit the interstates in the next year will be the first deployed for commercial use. Texas is an attractive option for companies that are developing this technology for several reasons. The state has long stretches of road and a thriving freight industry, as it sits on one of the country’s busiest routes. Perhaps more importantly, the state has the least restrictive regulations in the nation when it comes to autonomous vehicles.
So far, there have not been any accidents in Texas that are known to have been associated with autonomous vehicles. However, up until this point, all tests have included a safety driver present. While the companies are collaborating with the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) to ensure the trucks are as safe as possible, many safety advocates are worried that the technology is still too new.
Federal regulations concerning autonomous vehicles have stalled for years, which means it is up to the states to determine regulations. For instance, there are still no laws addressing who is liable if a driverless vehicle causes a truck accident. Trucking companies argue that the best way to ensure safety is to test and fine-tune the technology in real-world conditions. However, consumer advocate groups such as Texas Watch argue that rushing the technology and using other drivers on the road as beta testers puts those drivers at risk.
How Companies are Improving Safety
In many cases, automated driving technology may improve safety. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), many of the assistive features already available on some newer model cars can actually help reduce accidents, injuries, and fatalities. The technologies may be able to detect and react to a potential crash quicker than a driver, and they reduce human error due to recklessness, distracted driving, or fatigue.
However, the technology is still under development. One of the main issues that truck automation developers are working on with the Texas Department of Public Safety in advance of the deployment is to teach them how to respond to police vehicles. This is no easy task, as the trucks will have to be able to differentiate between police and other emergency vehicles, know when and how to safely pull over, and communicate with police officers without them requiring specialized equipment.
The Automated Vehicle Safety Consortium (AVSC) has published a number of Best Practices guides that apply to all automated vehicles, including first responder interactions and metrics for analyzing safety. As automation technology improves and learns how to better interact with the environment, it likely won’t be long before much of the goods and materials shipped across the country are hauled by driverless trucks.
About the author
Myra Thomas is a freelance content writer. She is versed in a variety of topics, but specializes in sharing legal news and helpful how-to guides. Her focus is on creating easily accessible content which contains practical advice.