Are Autonomous Trucks Closer Than We Think?

Uber announced this month that it would begin operating autonomous cars around Pittsburgh.  While the vehicles will initially deploy with a human in the driver seat, the plan is to eventually phase out the drivers so the vehicles are truly autonomous.  Soon Uber users in Pittsburgh will have the ability to experience something that most of us only imagined while watching a movie.

Overshadowed by Uber’s announcement regarding their Pittsburgh fleet was the company’s acquisition of San Francisco self-driving truck startup Otto for approximately $680 million.  Anthony Levandowski, co-founder of Otto, has been put in charge of Uber’s autonomous vehicle programs in San Francisco, Palo Alto and Pittsburgh and Otto has expressed a desire to quickly bring to market their autonomous fleet using Uber’s resources.  In fact, Otto hopes to have its equipment on its partner’s trucks within the next 12 to 18 months.

While proponents of autonomous technology point to perceived benefits of better fuel efficiency, less pollution and fewer accidents, those against have cited the millions of jobs that would be lost.  Otto states for the foreseeable future they view their equipment as a co-pilot for drivers.  While we appear to be on the cusp of a new dawn in transportation, similar to when horses and wagons were replaced by the internal combustible engine, there are significant questions that will need to be answered.

The most glaring issue in the transportation industry is the interplay between autonomous vehicles and the Federal regulations governing motor carriers.  Will “drivers” in autonomous vehicles need to abide by the requirements for hours of service and logs even though eventually they will not technically drive the vehicle?  Can a truly autonomous vehicle operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week?  How often will autonomous vehicles need to be inspected or have preventative maintenance performed; more due to less driver intervention and more reliance on the technology?  There are no answers to these questions yet as the technology is still in the testing stage. It is difficult to envision a future where humans will ever fully sacrifice their right to control a vehicle. Accordingly, the Federal regulations could become more complex having to deal with both manned and unmanned vehicles.  Undoubtedly, the issues will be far and wide as it relates to regulation.

There are also more practical issues regarding the ability of such vehicles to adapt to unforeseen circumstances.  While the vehicles may not have issues with traveling in a straight line from Point A to Point B, will they ever be able to handle shifting cargo, debris falling into the road or suicidal deer?  In test runs, the driver for Otto had to disengage the autonomous system when similar events occurred. Unless the vehicles can perform corrective maneuvers on their own, a company employing such autonomous technology would almost certainly face a greater risk of liability in an accident due to the failure to attempt to avoid the collision if the driver didn’t reengage.

There is no denying a sense of excitement as technology progresses but there are concerns regarding the ability of the industry to adapt at the same pace.  It is important to remain up to date in an ever changing technological world.  At Roberts Perryman we are keeping a close eye on technology & new developments in the world of autonomous commercial motor vehicles.

Brandon Howard is an associate at Roberts Perryman. Brandon’s practice is focused on Transportation Law & Litigation.  Brandon is in the Springfield office.

Brandon Howard
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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