Recently, the Department of Transportation announced that the department would update the existing policy for self-driving vehicles to expand the definition of “driver” beyond solely human beings. In the future, “driver” may also define an autonomous system, and some experts predict that autonomous vehicles could become a major part of the trucking industry in the United States.
The trucking industry currently has a serious driver shortage that has already led to price hikes for many expensive consumer goods throughout the country, and many analysts expect this trend to worsen in the next few years as an aging workforce starts to retire. Autonomous vehicles could potentially fill this gap, but there are major concerns on this front.
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Are Autonomous Vehicles Safe?
There have been several notable cases of fatal accidents caused by self-driving vehicles. The technology behind most of these systems still relies on a human being in the driver seat who is ready to quickly assume manual control if necessary. Autonomous vehicle systems need to be able to adapt to changing and unpredictable road conditions and make safe snap decisions. The American trucking industry ships more than 50 million tons of cargo across the country every day, and autonomous vehicles could one day manage the logistics of these deliveries without human operators.
Most labor economists don’t predict autonomous driving systems to replace human freight drivers until the mid-2040s, but there could be major strides toward this shift in the coming years. Autonomous vehicle systems must be able to distinguish pedestrians, slower traffic, and other variables constantly to avoid serious accidents, and the technology appears to be heading in that direction.
Liability for Self-Driving Vehicle Accidents
When self-driving vehicle accidents happen, the question of liability can be murky. In most cases, the human operator of the autonomous vehicle will be liable for the resulting damages, but it is also possible for the vehicle’s manufacturer to absorb liability as well. This is especially true if a software glitch or physical defect causes an accident.
In the future, if fully autonomous vehicles take over the trucking industry, then the owners of those vehicles would be liable for any damage their vehicles cause. Determining liability for multi-vehicle accidents could also be a complicated process. How does an autonomous system respond to a crash? How would an autonomous truck avoid a dangerous driver? It may take several years for autonomous vehicle manufacturers to answer these questions.
How Could Autonomous Vehicles Help the Trucking Industry?
There are many reasons for the current and growing shortage of truck drivers in the United States. The wages are somewhat competitive, and many trucking companies have started offering signing bonuses and other incentives to attract new drivers. Unfortunately, the lifestyle that comes with truck driving is incredibly demanding. Many veteran truck drivers report that the job interferes with family life and personal relationships. Many truck drivers also suffer adverse medical conditions from sitting behind the wheel all day with little access to healthy food. Trucking managers often report that too few people find the lifestyle of truck driving appealing.
Truck drivers also often face undue scrutiny and ridicule from other drivers because of the seemingly simple nature of their work. They often report that other drivers do not respect them, and that bonuses and other incentives come with ridiculous amounts of red tape. While it’s possible to make fantastic money as a truck driver, the extremely demanding career leaves little room for a personal life. Autonomous vehicles could be the answer to this problem and help save a stagnating but crucial field in the American economy.
Instead of investing in hiring and training new drivers from a very small pool of new applicants, distribution companies could start investing in autonomous driving technology and the required support structures. Over time, this could mean that human drivers would only handle special requests, courier-style deliveries, and some forms of cargo that owners may not want to entrust to an autonomous driving system. However, the technology and safety structures involved in autonomous vehicles require more development before this can happen.