We need trucks to transport goods across the country, but the high rate of accidents makes it less than an ideal solution. There were 7,368 deadly truck crashes in a recent two-year period, and 2,554 of those involved driver errors, such as speeding, distraction, inattention, and failure to yield to someone else’s right-of-way.
Companies like Uber are already using self-driving trucks to haul freight. So could this be an ideal solution to reduce the rate of accidents?
There are several reasons why self-driving trucks could reduce the rate of accidents. For starters, they’ll all but eliminate errors in judgment. A self-driving truck will never drive above the speed limit, and will never attempt to change lanes without signaling. Provided it’s able to detect an object like another vehicle or a pedestrian, it will also never misread a situation and cause a collision.
Trucks piloted by AI software are also immune to the psychological conditions that can affect human truck drivers. They’ll never be capable of getting distracted by a ringing smartphone. They’ll never have the opportunity to drink and drive. They’ll never get tired, even after days of continuous driving.
Note that all these benefits only refer to level 4 or level 5 autonomous driving, which is considered fully autonomous. At level 2 or level 3, where a driver is still expected to retain primary control or take over in the event of a safety-critical scenario, we have to use a different standard of judgment. Here, man and machine work together to try and create safe driving conditions, but this is problematic because it’s natural for a human in these situations to let the machine take the reins. Ultimately, this could lower the human driver’s reaction time, and cause more accidents (though research has yet to confirm this).
However, self-driving trucks may not be the ideal solution. Many human truck drivers have voiced their opposition to autonomous trucks, and for reasons beyond fear of losing their jobs. While self-driving cars are very good at driving in “normal” conditions, signaling lane changes, avoiding other vehicles, and getting to their destination on time, they may not be equipped to deal with the strange, uncommon variables that truckers deal with on an ongoing basis, such as an unexpected object emerging, or a condition that can’t be easily seen by the truck’s sensors.
We should also consider the fact that while roughly a third of all trucking accidents involved driver error, that leaves two-thirds of accidents which were attributable to unpreventable circumstances; in those cases, autonomous trucking won’t be able to make a substantial improvement.
There are also secondary issues with introducing self-driving trucks to our roadways:
Many opponents of self-driving cars bring up the possibility of falling victim to hacking, or other forms of exploitation. If a remote hacker could take control of an autonomous truck, they could intentionally pilot it to crash into a building, or program it to deliver goods to their location rather than its intended destination. However, it remains to be seen whether this type of digital hijacking is a bigger threat than conventional hijacking, or whether it’s even possible with the right encryption standards.
Truckers and economists are also concerned about the impact such a change could have on the economy. There are millions of people employed in driving, including truckers, chauffeurs, and taxi drivers, and if autonomous vehicle technology takes off, it could put them all out of jobs. The transition might save hundreds, or even thousands of lives, but it will cost millions their livelihood.
Autonomous trucks also need to solve the problem of reception. For proper security, they need to deliver goods only at a verified location, with an authorized representative waiting for it. Otherwise, almost anyone could mimic a storefront and gain access to the truck’s unguarded goods.
We may also see pedestrians and drivers taking advantage of the laws followed by self-driving vehicles. For example, trucks will be driven with a programmatic law to never collide with a pedestrian. Knowing this, pedestrians may walk in front of a truck with impunity, knowing it’s not going to creep forward. Drivers may learn to exploit their rules of operation the same way. At best, this will cause delays. At worst, it will cause further accidents.
The Bottom Line
So could self-driving trucks reduce the number of accidents on the road? Absolutely, assuming it’s integrated well. There are still hundreds of variables to consider and plenty of kinks to work out, but the technology is certainly promising—even in the face of its current disadvantages. With thousands of lives on the line, it’s worth at least investigating; otherwise, the rate of trucking accidents will continue to remain high.