It has been estimated that companies including Otto, Mercedes-Benz, Tesla, and others have invested more than $2 Billion in the development of self-driving or autonomous semi-trucks – just for long-haul logistics. While the transportation industry has come a long way in a short period of time, the reality of self-driving trucks entering the supply chain’s daily operations is not as optimistic. While there are several reasons for this, there are 3 main hurdles that self-driving trucks need to climb in order to become a reality in the logistics industry.
Let’s take a look at some of the challenges facing the introduction of self-driving trucks in North America.
The overwhelming topic of discussion about whether or not autonomous logistics transportation is a good idea has to do with the people that will be displaced when it’s fully activated. The integration of technology, specifically the automation of equipment is usually done to improve the efficiency of operations. In laymen’s terms – it’s a cost-savings initiative because when a machine completes a task – the need to pay human’s salaries, benefits, and other employee-related costs becomes a moot point when a machine completes the task.
Although the concept of self-driving trucks is cost-savings goldmines for transportation leaders, arguably the biggest hurdle is the fact that integration will displace thousands of human jobs eventually. Autonomous trucks are designed to operate 100% on their own – without the need for human drivers. While the initial launch of these self-driving trucks will likely continue to have an occupant to take over in case of an emergency situation for quite some time, transportation companies utilizing this new technology will eventually need to find a way to reallocate current driving positions.
As the recent accident in Tempe, Arizona involving a self-driving Uber Volvo and a biking pedestrian clearly articulates, the technology for self-driving vehicles is not ready for prime time. Additional not-so-publicly reported self-driving vehicle accidents have occurred in the past 24-months involving ‘test dummies’ (fortunately without the cost of human life). While several technology issues can be resolved through software patches and additional R & D, one item that can never be fixed is the actions of other drivers and pedestrians.
The accident in Tempe involving the bike rider is a great example of the unpredictable actions of other people on the road. According to reporting from the Police reports and from news media, the rider of the bike that was struck was crossing a busy road that was dimly lit, and not in a crosswalk. Once the vehicle noticed the bike rider, there was not enough time to avoid the incident. However, it has also been reported that Uber made changes to the autonomous safety features to the Volvo self-driving vehicle.
In the end, it was an accident that can be blamed on multiple individuals, and variables that simply can’t be predicted. The hurdle that the transportation industry faces in this instance is developing autonomous driving technology that has the ability to avoid accidents (which is a near impossibility) or work to develop safety protocols that can significantly reduce the potential of these accidents occurring.
A 2016 report indicated that 3,326 passenger vehicle occupants, bicyclists, motorcyclists, and pedestrians were killed in large truck-related crashes. While nearly 80 percent of these accidents were caused by passenger vehicles (and not the truck itself), over 75 percent of these accidents fell on the responsibility of the commercial trucking company – not with criminal charges; but civil lawsuits.
The current US legal system (in civil litigation), when a truck driver or commercial vehicle was involved in an accident, an individual may file suit against that driver, the company that hired the driver, or the company that hired the trucking company for the shipment. Interesting enough, one organization that can’t be sued is the manufacturer of the vehicle in question. This brings up an interesting scenario for self-driving trucks.
In theory, if a self-driving vehicle hits somebody or causes an accident, there is no truck driver to file a lawsuit against. A current piece of legislation being held up in the US House of Representatives is referred to as the AV Start Act, that would not permit people who were injured while riding in a self-driving vehicle to sue the maker of this technology, or to participate in class action litigation. Any disputes would need to be resolved in private arbitration. This situation introduces a huge legal issue for not only autonomous technology companies but the transportation companies looking to integrate their solutions.
The best thing about navigating any hurdle is clearly understanding the size of the hurdle, so a plan can be achieved to jump over. The entire logistics industry is going to have to combat these hurdles if they intend on integrating autonomous technology with self-driving vehicles in the future.