Autonomous Commercial Trucks Are Being Tested on Public Roads & Highways

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According to the National Motor Vehicle Crash Causation Survey (NMVCSS) conducted over the years from 2005 to 2007, about 94 percent of all vehicular accidents are the product of or contributed to by human error. These results are corroborated by a number of studies conducted over the years including the still cited 1979 Tri-Level Study of the Causes of Traffic Accidents and several studies from the UK. With human drivers allegedly playing such a critical role in causing crashes, it is not surprising that scientists and engineers are looking towards removing the human from the equation.

The promise of the autonomous vehicle is significantly reducing human driver errors so that fewer accidents occur. Proponents of autonomous vehicle technologies point to the myriad of uses and applications such technology can have. Proponents may even discuss applications of autonomous vehicles already in use, such as in some farming, dock, and mining equipment. From these limited applications in remote areas, individuals extrapolate that autonomous vehicles will be on the highways and roadways within just a few years.

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While the foregoing is technically true because both commercial trucks and passenger vehicles have been cleared for testing on public roads, it will be years before the technology is deployed widely. As nearly all engineers and individuals working on the projects admit, the technology still needs to improve and mature. Further delaying the widespread adoption of such technologies is the time it will take for the existing American auto-fleet to turn over and be replaced.

First Autonomous Truck Cleared to Drive on U.S. Highways

Last May, at the Hoover Dam, Daimler displayed a self-driving truck already cleared to be driven on U.S. roads and highways. The truck, is known as the Freightliner Inspiration Truck. The truck is designed to drive on regular roads alongside other vehicles – whether they are human driver or themselves autonomous. The hope is that autonomous trucks can be used on long-haul routes where driver fatigue is a serious concern.

However, the truck the is being marketed and presented to the public as wholly autonomous is actually still highly dependent on a human operator. Technically, the vehicle is classified as a Level 3 autonomous vehicle. Somewhat like an airplane, a Level 3 vehicle can go into something of an autopilot “highway Pilot” mode, but an alert and attentive driver is stall a necessity. The driver retains full override control of the vehicle at all times. Furthermore it is the driver that must navigate exits, interchanges, and local roads.

Challenges Presented by Autonomous Vehicle Technologies

In any case, autonomous vehicles are still on the distant horizon. However, as we prepare for what feels like a nearly inevitable shift to vehicles of this type there are three main concerns to keep in mind. First, the real-world performance and safety benefit of autonomous vehicles is till unstudied and, largely, unclear. That is, while autonomous vehicles appear to be a potential solution to the high incidence of human error contributing to crashes, such an effect has yet to be observed.

Second, automated vehicles and their systems can be misused or applied to situations where they were not designed to operate. For instance, a driver may become overly reliant on the “Highway Pilot” mode and doze off or fail to maintain his or her focus or attention and thus is unable to avoid an unexpected roadway hazard. Furthermore, most autonomous vehicles  are designed to be able to communicate with other cars, trucks, and vehicles on the roadways. While vehicles that can “talk” increase the amount of data vehicles can utilize in their algorithmic decision-making processes, a networked vehicle is also one that is vulnerable to malicious acts by hackers. In fact, the recent mas recall ordered by Fiat-Chrysler over hacking concerns regarding vehicles equipped with its UConnect entertainment system shows the reality of this risk.

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Third, autonomous driving systems inherently shift responsibility and culpability from the driver to the engineer or designer. While on the surface this may seem to be a minor issue, any engineer would state that any system built and maintained by a human can fail. However, when the driver is not even one percent responsible for an accident, who is liable? On one hand, it is inequitable to impose financial responsibility over something an individual had no control over. But, on the other hand if liability solely attaches to the manufacturers, such a concentration of liability may prove unsustainable and leave injury victims without a means to be made whole should a widespread defect arise.

Autonomous vehicle technology presents interesting economic opportunities for commercial trucking companies and may usher in significant changes in how Americans commute. But, for now, there are still significant technical and legal questions to answer.

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