You may have heard about experiments with self-driving trucks that could someday replace long-haul truck drivers. But what hasn’t received much attention is that the trucking industry is already using that unproven technology to ask for driver safety regulations to be relaxed.
Pronto AI (Artificial Intelligence), a company developing truck co-piloting software, has petitioned the federal government to exempt drivers from limits on how much time they can spend behind the wheel in a single driving shift if they use the company’s technology.
The company is asking the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) to allow truckers with the co-pilot software to drive up to 13 hours within a 15-consecutive-hour driving window after coming on duty, following 10 consecutive hours off duty, according to a notice published in the Federal Register on April 20.
Current Hours of Service (HOS) regulations allow up to 11 hours within a 14-consecutive-hour driving window. HOS regulations are in place to guard against fatigued driving, a common cause of truck accidents.
Pronto AI is seeking a five-year renewable exemption for drivers in trucks equipped with Copilot by Pronto advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) and the SmartDrive® Video Safety Program, and operating under certain other safeguards.
FMCSA requests public comment on Pronto’s application for exemption, with a deadline of 30 days after the request was published.
“A driver operating under the exemption would be ‘hands on’ and in complete control of the vehicle at all times,” the company said according to the Freight Waves publication.
The company claims that the added level of automation reduces the physical and mental stress for truck drivers, thereby allowing them to spend additional hours safely behind the wheel.
“These same technologies would provide additional levels of safety by reducing the risk of the driver becoming drowsy or distracted and assist the driver in maintaining safe and proper control of the vehicle,” the statement continues.
Our quick review of comments received by FMCSA found that most are negative. Another trucking publication, Transportation Network Nation, noted that truckers are calling the proposal “absolutely insane,” “wrong,” and “unfair.”
Self-Driving Cars and Trucks and Accidents
The federal government’s position, as voiced by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), is that when truly automated vehicles are available, they will enhance public safety.
“Automated vehicles’ potential to save lives and reduce injuries is rooted in one critical and tragic fact: 94% of serious crashes are due to human error,” NHTSA says. “Automated vehicles have the potential to remove human error from the crash equation, which will help protect drivers and passengers, as well as bicyclists and pedestrians.”
Among the six levels of driver assistance technology advancements (Level Zero is no automation), today’s technology is still seeking to reach master Level 3, a system requiring the driver to be ready to take control of the vehicle at all times with notice. Level 4 is a system capable of operating the vehicle at all times under certain conditions, but which the driver may assume control of. Level 5 is full automation under all conditions, though a driver could still take over.
In March 2018, a woman who was hit and killed by a self-driving car operated by the ride-share company Uber in Tempe, Ariz., became the first pedestrian killed in a crash involving an autonomous vehicle. Video showed that the Uber driver was briefly distracted, but the vehicle’s sensors failed to register a pedestrian and brake or steer away.
Three cars equipped with Tesla’s Autopilot driver assistance system were involved in fatal crashes in January, calling into question the safety of this semi-autonomous system.
It’s no surprise that at a CNBC-sponsored East Tech West conference in China last fall autonomous driving company officials agreed that it makes more sense to apply the technology to long-haul trucks than to passenger cars. But even that may be too ambitious at this point.
Writing for Forbes, Lance B. Eliot, an expert on artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), explains that commercial trucks run on highways where they generally maintain consistent speeds along relatively straight stretches of road. Highway driving is more easily programmable and automated than driving in stop-and-go traffic in urban areas and suburban neighborhoods.
In a detailed article looking at reports about a truck that crossed the country using AI driving software last December, Eliot says there is a lot that the public doesn’t understand about driverless vehicles.
Eliot, who is decidedly pro-technology, concludes that, “The ads that urge people to go to truck driving school and earn a living via driving trucks will eventually give way as AI takes the wheel.” But, “We decidedly aren’t there yet.”
Will Automated Trucks Mean Death or a Future for Truckers’ Jobs?
As the PBS documentary series Frontline said in November 2019, the implications of self-driving trucks on the labor market for long-haul truck drivers could be enormous.
Steve Viscelli, author of The Big Rig: Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream, told Frontline that 300,000 jobs in the trucking industry could be automated to some extent in the foreseeable future.
Others argue that the advent of self-driving trucks will lead to more jobs for truckers as automation drives down shipping costs and demand for long-haul trucking soars. Automated trucks will only go so far as transport hubs or ports where human drivers will take over and drive the last miles consisting of more complex urban and industrial roadways.
Shared Liability for Truck Accidents Remains the Same
Some of us are understandably wary of automated trucks. Whether a truck driver or a truck driving computer program is behind the wheel, trucking companies will remain liable for the trucks they put on the road and for their drivers’ negligence if either causes an accident that injures car drivers and passengers, pedestrians or cyclists.
Companies that create the AI software that automates trucks may be held liable, as well, if their products cause or contribute to truck crashes.
The truck accident lawyers of Hardison & Cochran in Raleigh, N.C., have a proud record of standing up for accident victims and pursuing just compensation for our clients harmed in truck accidents. We’ve seen many changes in technology in the transportation industry. Our commitment to holding responsible parties accountable for the injuries they cause never changes.
If you’ve been injured in a North Carolina truck accident, call us toll free at 800-434-8399 or fill out our online contact form. You’ll get a response within 24 hours, and your initial consultation is always free.