Self-Driving Semi-Trucks are Coming. How Safe Is the Technology?

Are you ready to share the road with a self-driving 18-wheeler?

While autonomous semi-trucks have been touted as a cure-all for the nation’s ongoing truck driver shortage for several years now, the currently available self-driving technology is far from reliable, leading critics to worry that some tech and manufacturing companies are overlooking significant safety concerns as they rush to become the first to put a genuinely autonomous commercial truck on the road.

The Killino Firm’s Truck Accident Lawyers believe the victims of preventable commercial truck and 18-wheeler crashes deserve compensation for their pain and suffering, regardless of who is or isn’t behind the wheel. If you or someone you love was injured or tragically killed in a trucking-related accident, call our law firm toll-free at 1-877-875-2927 to speak with an attorney and learn more about your legal rights.

The Race for Autonomous 18-Wheelers

In 2018, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced a $100 million plan for self-driving vehicle research, including a $60 million grant for private companies. Since then, multiple players have entered the race to make autonomous semi-trucks and 18-wheelers a reality.

That same year, for example, truck manufacturing giant Daimler announced a $573 million investment in self-driving trucks. Three years later, Elon Musk announced that Tesla was developing Semi, a self-driving truck that relies on battery power and has a range of up to 500 miles. Aurora, another major player in the space, even created its own autonomous truck operating system.

Then in March 2022, Kodiak Robotics, a self-driving start-up, and U.S. Xpress, a traditional trucking company, deployed an autonomous 18-wheeler to the highway between Dallas, Texas, and Atlanta, Georgia. The truck operated around the clock for five days straight, traveling more than 6,300 miles and making four round trips to deliver eight loads of freight.

But while the demonstration highlighted the enormous potential of autonomous trucking, it also brought the technology’s obvious shortcomings to the fore, as a new team of specialists were rotated into the truck each day to ensure a human was on hand to take control should anything go wrong. According to The New York Times, those “safety drivers” had to grab the wheel multiple times.

Self-Driving Trucks: What are the Risks?

Safety is the greatest obstacle to getting a truly self-driving truck on the road.

Advanced driver assistance systems, which provide lower levels of automation to anticipate and help drivers avoid imminent hazards, are now standard equipment on new cars and trucks, offering the closest comparison to driverless vehicles in the real-world setting. Unfortunately, even this limited technology is not without issues, with recent data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration implicating such systems in nearly 400 incidents, including six deaths and five injuries, reported between July 1, 2021, and May 15, 2022.

As The New York Times noted, the first completely autonomous semi-trucks will likely have to navigate highways populated by other vehicles with lower levels of autonomy. That means these rigs must be capable of quickly and effectively reacting to the (highly unpredictable) human drivers sharing the road. Although self-driving trucks can navigate most typical highway scenarios — merging into traffic from an on-ramp, changing lanes, slowing for cars stopped on the shoulder — the technology still has difficulty responding to less common situations, like a sudden chain-reaction crash. The safety challenges only become more formidable for an autonomous truck attempting to navigate the complexity of city driving.

“Highways are a more structured environment,” Alex Rodrigues, chief executive of the self-driving-truck start-up Embark told The Times. “You know where every car is supposed to be going. They’re in lanes. They’re headed in the same direction.”

Because of these and other issues, most companies planning to deploy autonomous 18-wheelers and other self-driving trucks won’t be foregoing safety drivers anytime soon. Before that’s even possible, they’ll also need to answer a raft of basic but essential questions, including:

  • How will driverless trucks handle roadside inspections?
  • How will they set up the reflective triangles that warn other motorists when a vehicle has pulled to the shoulder?
  • How will they deal with blown tires and repairs?

“Just when you think this technology is almost here, it’s five years away,” Tom Schmitt, chief executive of Forward Air, another company that tested with Kodiak’s trucks, told The New York Times.

Federal and State Regulators are Taking Notice

Even though actual self-driving commercial vehicles are likely years away, some regulators on the federal and state levels aren’t waiting for the future to arrive.

In California, for example, newly introduced legislation would forbid the operation of autonomous trucks unless a human safety driver is inside the vehicle. While the state already has rules governing self-driving cars and delivery trucks weighing less than 10,001 pounds, the California Department of Motor Vehicles’ recent decision to begin gathering information for new regulations allowing for self-driving semi-trucks weighing as much as possible 80,000 pounds inspired the proposal.

In announcing the bill, Assemblymember Cecilia Aguiar-Curry said she wasn’t opposed to the idea of autonomous trucks entirely. However, she is concerned about the roadworthiness of current technology.

“There may be a time, 30 or 40 years from now — and I won’t be around to see it — where hopefully that they might be able to do that,” she said. “This isn’t the time to do it. It’s all about timing.”

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has been looking into self-driving truck regulations since 2019, and is currently considering a proposal to require carriers to notify the government if they plan to operate autonomous trucks in interstate commerce. As part of that effort, the agency is asking the public for input on the following key questions:

  • Should motor carriers operating Level 4 (highly autonomous) or Level 5 (fully autonomous) self-driving commercial vehicles be required to notify the FMCSA before operating those vehicles in interstate commerce without a human driver behind the wheel? What potential methods or procedures should be established?
  • Before operating in interstate commerce, should motor carriers be required to submit information, data, documentation, or other evidence demonstrating carriers seeking to operate Level 4 or 5 autonomous commercial vehicles have appropriate safety management controls in place?
  • What data should FMCSA collect and maintain regarding Level 4 or 5 self-driving commercial vehicles engaged in interstate transportation? How should such information be used?

In addition to the proposed notification requirement, the FMCSA is also seeking public comment on proposals to regulate the remote assistants who monitor autonomous trucks, as well as potential new vehicle inspection and maintenance requirements.

Contact an Experienced Truck Accident Lawyer

Our 18-Wheeler Accident Lawyers have extensive experience representing crash victims and their families. Because trucking-related accidents typically involve more severe injuries and multiple liable parties, insurance is less likely to cover all resulting damages. Our law firm has the resources and expertise to take on the trucking company attorneys and file a personal injury or wrongful death lawsuit on your behalf. To learn more, please contact us for a free consultation at 1-877-875- 2927.