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In October 2016, beer maker Anheuser-Busch made the nation’s first commercial shipment by self-driving truck, completing a journey of 120 miles through Colorado with a driver on board but not behind the wheel.

US Not First with Autonomous Trucks

Six months earlier, a “platoon” of six convoys of two or three semi-automated “smart” trucks, linked together by wifi connection with drivers behind the wheel, completed a journey along E19 highway across France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Trucks leaving factories as far away as Sweden and southern Germany joined the platoon. A year before that, a self-driving truck “platoon” completed a journey along A28 motorway in the Netherlands.

The first truck in a semi-automated truck platoon determines the speed and route while other trucks follow, providing synchronized braking and preventing sudden jolts and shocks. “Truck platooning will ensure cleaner and more efficient transport. Self-driving vehicles also contribute to road safety because most accidents are caused by human failure,” said Dutch infrastructure and environment minister, Melanie Schultz van Haegen. The Dutch business community and the transport sector see good potential for truck platooning across Europe.

US Trucking Companies Favor Self-Driving Trucks

The US trucking industry envisions driverless trucks as a way to cut down on operation costs. In 2015, trucking brought in $726 billion in revenue and accounted for 81% of all freight transport, according to the American Trucking Association. If drivers are no longer required, $70 billion (34% of operational costs) spent annually by the trucking industry from labor costs could be eliminated.

Truckers See Self-Driving Technology Advantage

Since truckers are paid by the mile, those in favor say self-driving trucks would allow the nation’s 350,000 owner-operator truckers to keep their trucks on the road longer without cutting into their carefully monitored driving time.

In 2013, the Federal Motor Carriers Safety Association (FMCSA) set down Hours of Service Rules for Truck Drivers. Under those rules, a driver must work no more than 70 hours a week, with an eleven hour driving limit per day. The remainder of that time must be spent sleeping and/or resting off duty.

Advocates say a driver of a self-driving truck could spend at least part of the required thirteen hours of off duty/resting time hanging out in the Sleeper Berth, supposedly standing by to take control in an emergency, while the truck rolls along. However, according to FMCSA Hours of Service Rules, in order for time to be considered off duty, a trucker “must be relieved of all duty and responsibility for performing work.” So, under FMCSA rules, time spent monitoring driving would not be considered off duty.

Trucking Industry Doubts Driverless Technology Safety

Can an 80,000 pound self-driving 18-wheeler cruising down the highway at 60-70 miles per hour without a driver at the wheel spot in time and avoid a disabled vehicle, downed tree or other hazard in the road ahead? Can a driver away from the wheel, even if aware of an emergency situation, quickly intervene in time to prevent a collision?

The trucking industry is not convinced that the technology is able to decipher every road emergency, and remains concerned about the danger of a driver resting or even sleeping while a truck is at highway speeds.

Regulators Hold Back with Self-Driving Rules

FMCSA is currently taking a hands off, wait and see approach with regulating this emerging technology, telling drivers to be patient and cautiously avoid blind spots around trucks while attempting to pass them.

Currently, states offer self-driving tech companies a patchwork of laws that, in time, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) hopes to combine into a cohesive autonomous car policy.

For information about current Federal and State Trucking Laws, see our website at www.portlandtruckaccidentlawyer.com.