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Black truck stopped on highway by automatic braking system.

Most consumer goods in the U.S. arrive on doorsteps thanks to truck delivery. The trucking industry is worth more than $700 billion, but it’s facing a significant hurdle. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the industry was facing a shortage of drivers. It’s only worsened in the years since, and the need has jumped to 80,000 drivers. Industry experts are hopeful that a novel solution could help solve the problem. Autonomous trucks were once a futuristic concept, but technology has advanced enough that they’re poised to take over the trucking sector. Texas has quickly become the center of this growing industry. Our state has the most truck drivers in the country, and Texas also has few regulations for autonomous vehicles. Self-driving vehicle companies are already testing large autonomous trucks on Texas roads.  

What Are Autonomous Trucks?

Autonomous cars and trucks increase efficiency and allow drivers to travel longer distances, and they might also impact road safety. Most traffic accidents happen because of human error, and autonomous vehicles remove the possibility of distracted driving or falling asleep at the wheel. Some vehicles are fully self-driving, which means they can travel on roads without a human in the car. Others have a lower level of independence. Some autonomous trucks might have someone in the cab, but they aren’t responsible for actively steering the vehicle. As a result, they’re able to drive more routes a day. 

The Society of Automotive Engineers ranks vehicles from no autonomy to full autonomy on a scale of 0 to 5. The first three levels still require human control, and most of the cars on the road fall into these categories. Autonomous trucks in the future could rank Level 3 or above. At Level 3, a truck would have sensors that allow it to make driving decisions, but a human would need to be alert and ready to take over if needed. At Level 4, a truck would be able to operate on its own without requiring human interaction. Lastly, at Level 5, a vehicle would be fully automated with no need for a human operator.

Truck drivers must pass more rigorous exams than someone who only drives a personal vehicle. Even with thorough training, driver error is to blame for many fatal truck crashes. Truck drivers may get distracted by their phones, daydream on the road, or become dangerously exhausted after a 12-hour day. 

Even if a driver follows all road rules, they can cause a traffic crash due to improperly maintained equipment. Large trucks are involved in 10% of fatal crashes in the U.S., even though they only account for 4% of the vehicles on the road. In 2020, nearly 600 people died in Texas fatal truck crashes. Unfortunately, the number of large truck accident deaths increases every year.

Autonomous Truck Accidents

What happens if an autonomous vehicle causes a car accident? While autonomous technology is safer than a human driver who may become distracted behind the wheel, it can still fail. If sensors malfunction or a vehicle doesn’t recognize another car and plows into it, the question of who’s liable can become murky. Drivers in autonomous trucks might let their guard down and not be able to intervene in time. 

If an autonomous vehicle makes a mistake and there’s someone behind the wheel, they will likely be held at fault for the accident. Once we advance to the point that trucks can travel long distances without a human involved, the question of blame will become more complicated to answer, and the courts will likely evaluate on a case-by-case basis. Trucking companies will consider the liability ramifications as they decide whether to invest in autonomous vehicles.

Autonomous vehicles offer tremendous promise for the trucking industry and could help us avoid the potentially catastrophic consequences of a truck driver shortage. If autonomous trucks take over in Texas and otherwise, they could make our economy run more smoothly and reduce trucking fatalities. Autonomous truck accidents are infrequent but likely to rise as driverless vehicles on Texas highways increase. Call The Cochran Firm Texas at 1800 THE FIRM (1-800-843-3476) if you have any questions about autonomous trucks and accident liability.

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