Self-driving trucks are being tested in many states, including Pennsylvania. Currently, state law prohibits driverless vehicles on major roadways without a human being on board. However, that could be changing in the very near future.
It is only natural that people have questions and concerns about sharing the road with a heavy and large truck traveling at high speeds without a driver.
Are automated vehicles ready to operate without a human driver at the wheel? Has the technology been tested sufficiently? Can self-driving trucks really make our roads safer, or do they simply introduce new crash risks in place of human driver errors?
Learn more about self-driving trucks below, including how they may impact road safety and who may be liable if a crash occurs.
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Are Driverless Trucks Allowed in Pennsylvania?
Just this month, on Nov 3, 2022, Gov. Tom Wolf signed a bill into law that makes the testing of driverless vehicles legal on Pennsylvania roads. This is a significant change to Pennsylvania’s vehicle code. A large portion of this law, bill HB2398, goes into effect in July 2023 (240 days after signing the bill). This new law enables commercial vehicle operators (CMVs) to deploy fleets that include both human-operated and driverless trucks. However, these CMV operators must first apply for a certificate of compliance within the state.
To obtain this certificate, applicants must submit their contact details, proof of insurance, and a safety management plan. This plan must be filed with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT). PennDot has 30 days to review each applicant’s submission.
One of the things this new law legalizes is platooning on state roads. This is a test that involves two driverless trucks, a lead vehicle and a trailing vehicle. The truck in front has a human driver on board. The trailing vehicle has an automated driving system engaged and requires no human on board.
Do Self-Driving Trucks Make Our Roads Safer?
There is a lot of evidence to support how self-driving trucks could make our roads safer. According to recent studies, the number of collisions could be reduced by as much as 80 percent.
Driverless trucking does this by removing several human factors of truck driving, such as:
- Drowsy drivers nodding off at the wheel
- Drug or alcohol addicted drivers
- Distracted driving behaviors
- Aggressive truck drivers
- Inexperienced truckers making poor decisions
Are Driverless Trucks More Efficient?
Driverless trucks are being touted as not only safer, but also more efficient. Some of the claims about improved efficiency include:
- Resolution of ongoing issues, such as driver shortages, that cause delays
- No more wrong turns or bungled shortcuts, saving fuel costs for trucking companies
- More cargo that can be transported without the need for multiple drivers
- No more concerns about drivers needing to stop for breaks
- Maximized time and more efficient routes so deliveries arrive more quickly
- Computer AIs replacing poor decision making that could lead to a crash
- Trucks being able to operate in off-peak travel times, reducing traffic congestion
Are There Any Crash Risks With Self-Driving Trucks?
Many believe that the technology used for self-driving trucks is not yet road ready. Wherever you stand on this debate, driverless trucks still pose some crash risks, which could result from:
For the time being, there are still drivers on board self-driving trucks. Their primary purpose in the testing phase is to remain alert and take control if a problem arises. However, these drivers may become distracted or fall asleep. If that happens, these test drivers will not be able to respond to a road hazard, such as a deer or object in the road, in time.
Poor Vehicle Maintenance
Like any type of vehicle, self-driving trucks need regular maintenance and service to keep them operating safely. Truck owners or trucking companies have a legal responsibility to keep vehicles in safe operating condition. No automated driving system can prevent worn-out parts from breaking down, such as:
- Old brakes failing or not being able to stop the vehicle
- Deflated, overinflated or worn-out tires blowing out
- Malfunctioning vehicle lights (headlights, taillights, turn signals)
- Transmission gear failing
- Steering component issues
- Suspension Failure
Improperly Loaded Cargo
Even if a vehicle is well maintained, if the truck is overloaded or the cargo improperly secured, it can lead to a serious crash. Cargo falling off of a truck at high speed could cause significant damage and harm to others.
Technology is only good until it fails. This is a huge concern about any type of driverless vehicle, but especially trucks due to their ability to do so much damage. To help prevent this from happening, the software and computer components in these vehicles require regular maintenance. At a minimum, this should include firmware updates and routine checks for any glitches or bugs in the system. There should also be protection against hacking and malware. If the automated driving system fails to do what it is intended to do, a collision may result.
Some examples of common self-driving truck crashes may include:
- Rear-end crashes: If detection sensors fail to work, or work as intended, a truck may not slow down or stop to avoid a hazard.
- Side-swipe crashes: This type of crash may occur if a driverless truck’s automated lane-keeping system fails.
- Head-on collisions: Yet another type of crash that could occur if lane-keeping systems or frontal detection systems fail.
Despite these concerns and potential failures, however, what we may see is a significant reduction in the number of serious crashes with semi-trucks.
Who is Liable for the Damages for a Crash with a Driverless Truck?
Since self-driving trucks will eventually have no driver on board, you may wonder who could be liable for damages if a crash occurred. It is a valid question. Currently, these vehicles must carry at least $1 million in liability insurance. Additionally, like truck crashes involving human drivers, liability could fall to multiple parties, including:
- Test driver: As long as human drivers are required on board these vehicles, there is an element of responsibility that individual owes to other drivers who share the road. Test drivers are supposed to remain alert and ready to take over in the event something goes wrong. If a driverless truck fails to autocorrect to stay in its lane of traffic, the test driver should take over and manually correct.
- Trucking company or truck owner: Trucking companies are still responsible for maintenance of the vehicle, loading cargo properly and more. If a failure to meet these duties contributes to a crash, the trucking company could be held liable for the damages.
- Truck manufacturer: If a self-driving truck is found to have a defect and that defect contributes to or causes a crash, the manufacturer could be liable.
- Software or computer parts manufacturer: Design flaws or malfunction in the software or computer parts may lead to the manufacturer’s liability if a crash occurs.
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