Trucking Automation is Coming: But Is it Good or Bad?

by Christopher Keith Fletcher on May. 05, 2024

Accident & Injury Car Accident Accident & Injury  Personal Injury Industry Specialties  Science, Technology & Internet 

Summary: The push to create autonomous vehicle technology that can operate private and commercial vehicles makes the technology inevitable. But with the drive for corporate profits at the cost of employees be a be a good thing? What are the safety implications. This article explores those issues.

When Terminator was released in 1984 and foretold artificial intelligence making machine come alive and going to war with the human race, we all applauded the great work of science fiction. Since that time people have shuddered at the possibility of it becoming science fact. Today, AI is changing the way many businesses are conducted. The automotive industry is no exception to this.

There are presently at least 28 auto manufacturers working on or producing driverless cars. But integrating autonomous vehicles into public use has not been without its woes. The automated vehicle giant Tesla has recently recalled nearly all 2 million of its vehicles due to safety concerns with the auto pilot feature. Driverless vehicle company Cruise has suspended operations nationwide following the launch of a federal investigation into several pedestrian accidents involving their vehicles while operating in San Francisco.

Despite these issues with smaller passenger vehicles, there are several companies already manufacturing self-driving 18-wheelers for use in transporting goods and equipment across the country.  Embark recently announced a successful coast-to-coast trip by their truck. Another company, Auora Innovation has announced plans to have a truck going from Dallas to Houston and back without a driver by late 2024. If we have not mastered small cars, why the push for automated 26,000-ton trucks that have the potential to cause widespread damage and catastrophic injuries when a truck accident occurs?  The answer is simple: money. Money is why trucking automation is coming whether we like it or not.

Background on the Trucking Industry

There are over 2 million trucking carriers operating over 4 million semi-trucks in the United States alone. In 2021, the trucking industry generated $875.5 billion dollars in revenue. To keep those trucks moving, there are over 3.5 million licensed truck drivers in the United States. As in any industry, the company that can get the products to their destination the fastest and for the lowest cost will be the company that scales the fastest.

In short, the big players in the trucking industry are eating up the mom-and-pop trucking companies with efficiency and reduced costs. The big companies have automated scheduling, coordinating drivers, and monitoring their trucks. The next big cost to reduce is drivers.

The Federal Regulations Influence

Right now, interstate trucking is regulated by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA). The FMCSA is responsible for promulgating the Hours-of-Service Rules that all trucking companies and their drivers must follow. Truck drivers can drive no more than 11 hours within a 14-hour time frame. They must take a 30-minute break after 8 hours of straight driving. After the 14 hours, they must take 10 full hours off either spent in the sleeper birth or on personal time. Interstate truck drivers must stop driving if they have driven 60 hours total in 7 days or 70 hours in 8 days. They can reset this by taking 34 straight hours off.

As can be seen above, many of the Hours-of-Service Rules place limitations on how and when a truck driver may operate the vehicle. If you remove the driver from the equation, you remove the need for a restriction. In addition to this, automated vehicles do not require sleep aids to stay alert. Self-driving trucks cannot drink and drive. Simply put, if you take the driver out of the equation, you do not have to stop running the trucks or pause during long trips for rest and you never have to sober them up to drive a little further. On top of this, you do not have to pay the AI running the show for overtime.

Saving on Insurance Costs: Autonomous Vehicles Cannot be Grossly Negligent

Another huge reason the trucking industry wants automation is that, if it works right, it has the potential to save millions in lawsuits and insurance costs. The average cost of a truck accident involving a fatality is $4.8 million. But that is small in comparison to some of the verdicts we see. There was a 90-million-dollar verdict against Werner in Texas a few years ago. The state legislatures and courts keep trying to find ways to stop what they call ‘nuclear verdicts’ but they keep happening due to the egregious conduct that is often involved and the catastrophic injuries they cause.

When AI does the driving, there is no cheating on the driver logs to hide service hour violations. There is no being ordered to run hotshot trips when you are too tired to see straight. There are no drugs or drinking while driving.  AI can text while driving without distraction. In the end, the things that cause a jury to get angry and award huge damage awards and things like punitive damages simply are no longer at play.

 In summary, autonomous driving trucks will save on salaries, increase work hours/times/efficiency, and reduce verdicts. Insurance companies and trucking companies alike are banking on this to cut costs and make higher profits. But what will be the cost to the rest of us? There will be more people out of work. There will be less accountability for accidents. AI is coming and it may destroy us all in a way that even the Terminator did not envision.

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