Google Awarded Patent for Self-Driving Delivery Trucks: What Does the Future Hold?

Every-Day-Industry-News:  The typical seasonal decline in freight shipments is upon us; fuel prices remain attention grabbingly low and; industry members continue the chase to keep up with Washington’s forever-evolving guidelines of the trucking industry.  While the every-day-industry-news is essential to the core of the transportation industry, it does not always spark my imagination.

What does spark my imagination: picture driving on a three lane highway, you are in the middle lane and there are delivery trucks on either side of you- you look over to your right and to your left, and both delivery truck’s driver’s seats are empty-no human driver is anywhere in your sight.  How would you react?   Recently, Google was awarded a patent that could (someday) turn this imagination into a reality.

Potential Industry-Transformation- News:  Self-Driving Delivering Trucks

Earlier this month, Google was awarded a patent that indicates they are eyeing commercial delivery technology, specifically:  autonomous commercial trucks.  This announcement followed the already present publicity associated with Google’s  ongoing development of its self-driving car program (currently being tested in three U.S. cities) and their drone delivery program-“Project Wing”-expected to launch as early as 2017 (think: AmazonPrime, crazy fast drone delivery).

The patent describes a driverless truck filled with patented safety cubicles that users would only need a credit card security code to access the ordered goods.  As for how the truck’s driverless system would work, the patent mentions some of the basic technologies Google has been using in the self-driving cars it’s been testing, such as radar, GPS, video cameras and laser range finders.

This may come as no shock to some since over the past three years, traditional carmakers and tech companies have openly accelerated their efforts to develop and sell self-operating vehicles.  For others, especially current drivers just learning of this technology for the first time, we imagine this news caused angst and/or worry about future job security.

For those in panic mode:  Keep in mind that this is just a patent and therefore may never actually hit the road and there is no guarantee that Google is planning to actually roll out a fleet of delivery trucks- so far Google has not commented on its plans for the patent.   All we know at this point is that Google is looking at a multi-pronged approach for its autonomous delivery plan and their target market appears to be geared towards delivery of individually ordered consumer goods- and not as much towards delivery of commercially purchased goods for the time being.

What is the government saying about this?

In November, Google requested guidance from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.  In response, the NHTSA remarkably shared Google’s view and said that the systems piloting a Google self-driving could be considered a “driver” under federal law.  The affirmation is a major step toward commercializing self-driving cars since many advocates have worried that regulatory red tape will put a halt to the technology.

However, the NHTSA went on to clarify that not all regulations as they currently stand can be applied to driverless cars-thus preventing their implementation into the transportation industry as the regulations stand.  At the end of the day, Washington policy makers-not technologists- will hold the reigns and control the speed of the future of this technology as they have with seat belts, airbags, emissions technology and electric cars- only government can provide the rules of the road and existing regulations written for human-controlled cars cannot be ignored.

Stay Tuned: The NHTSA has announced that it intends to outline a national set of rules and guidelines for deploying autonomous cars within six months-which is a good start.  Six months seems to be an extremely optimistic timeline considering the daunting amount of pioneering necessary to govern this unprecedented topic.  Regardless of the timeline, it will be interesting to see the proposed rules and guidelines when they are released.  Make sure to keep an eye on our blog for any updates.

Emily Littlefield is an associate attorney at Roberts Perryman. Emily’s practice focuses on transportation, insurance coverage and defense.

Emily Littlefield

Roberts Perryman has been a leader in transportation defense for over 50 years with offices in St. Louis and Springfield, MO and Belleville, IL.

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