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Otto Uber deal poses the question: Do autonomous trucks need drivers?

Written by Steve Gursten Posted October 19th, 2016

As driverless truck startup company Otto has been acquired by ride-sharing giant Uber, trucking attorneys and industry experts weigh in on the need for a driver in the cab as this technology becomes reality

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Our attorneys have been writing about the future of autonomous trucks for quite some time, and speculating whether the commercial transportation industry will be the first or near the last to become autonomous. There are massive economies of scale and savings that would suggest trucks will be among the first, but many serious safety concerns about self-driving large trucks (without a driver in the cab ready to take over)  may delay widespread implementation of driverless technology for years after it’s ready.

The first road tested driverless truck was legally allowed to hit the road in Nevada in June 2015. Peterbuilt and other auto makers are developing driverless “Super Trucks.” And I’ve written how many people don’t want to become truck drivers because they fear they will soon be made obsolete due to this amazing technology.

To be sure, autonomous trucks have the potential to reduce thousands of truck accidents that kill and injure motorists every year. Self-driving technology can accomplish this by omitting a huge cause of truck accidents: driver error.

I recently ran across an interesting quote by Scott Grenerth, regulatory affairs director for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA), in a USA Today article about self-driving trucks:

“A truck driver has to be 100% engaged in the act of driving, scanning the horizon for that SUV that’s changing a tire on the shoulder or some idiot doing something dumb, and anything less isn’t something I want to deal with, ever.”

As a trucking lawyer, I’m not always a big fan of OOIDA.  I think the organization has worked to lower and loosen truck safety standards, often in opposition to other industry groups.

But this quote deserves serious consideration. The importance of truck – and truck driver safety in preventing crashes – is something we all agree on. Truckers must be in good health to safely drive without disqualifying medical conditions, and they must be properly trained and rested. Truckers must abide by the HOS requirements and the companies they work for must operate safe fleets.

As Mr. Grenerth said, anything less won’t do.

Our Truck Roundtable attorneys often go to work discovering the “anything less” part of this, looking into every act of negligence that contributes to a crash in our trucking cases.

This is why the development and implementation of autonomous trucks is so essential.

In trucking, we’re getting close to a world where commercial motor vehicles can essentially run 24 hours, seven days a week, barring maintenance, fueling, and loading and unloading. There will no longer be “lie books,” hours of service violations and truckers who have been awake for over 24 hours (as in the Tracy Morgan-Walmart truck accident) in a world where there are no humans behind the wheel to cause all-too-human errors that result in serious commercial motor vehicle accidents.

Mr. Grenerth’s comment applies to the rub of autonomous adaptation of commercial trucks.  Commercial motor vehicles are bigger, heavier and far more dangerous than cars. They require more skill and training to operate safely.  Even when they’re “driving themselves” as autonomous trucking becomes a reality, will the risks they pose because of their size and weight still require a trained, experienced driver in the cab?

The OOIDA position is that it’s absurd and far too dangerous to have driverless trucks without a driver in the cab ready to take over.

Uber-acquired Otto brings self-driving trucks closer to reality

Otto, a self-driving truck startup founded by Google Car was just bought by Uber for $670 million, according to published reports.

According to the USA Today article, Otto’s mission is to produce an aftermarket self-driving kit consisting of radar, laser radar, cameras and computers that can be added to existing big-rig cabs within the next few years. There’s no price yet, but Cruise Automation, which GM just bought for $1 billion, was charging $10,000 to add its autonomous-driving sensors to cars.

Meanwhile, in the next few weeks, Otto’s half-dozen $140,000 Volvo VNL 780 cabs, capable of pulling 53-foot trailers, will fan out across a few states for open road testing.

Why we should not delay putting autonomous trucks on our roads

As one of the few attorneys in the U.S. who devotes nearly my entire legal practice to protecting truck accident victims, I know from personal experience that the vast majority of these tragic and fatal truck crashes are caused by human driver error.

Most are entirely preventable.

This is the grand bargain of autonomous vehicles. They will not be perfect, but they will be far safer than humans. They will not be perfect, but perfection is not the standard driverless trucks should be measured against. There will be fewer truck accidents with autonomous technology than there are today. We should do everything we can to welcome it, as it becomes possible to safely implement.

Saving lives, but still some consequences to autonomous trucks

As I touched on in my blog post about the truck driver shortage that exists today (above), there will be more than 250,000 truck drivers who will lose their jobs one day due to autonomous trucks.

This is not a reason to stop the adoption of this technology. Those who use this loss of jobs as a reason to delay this technology – like the trucking lobby quoted in the USA Today article – miss the point, perhaps willfully. This technology will save lives and add billions of dollars in otherwise lost productivity for Americans stuck in traffic who commute. It promises independence for millions of aging baby boomers.

The loss of jobs should not be ignored. However, this loss of jobs due to improvements in productivity and technology is part of a larger  political failure of over two decades in the making by both political parties. Our government and our politicians have not provided the appropriate help and resources to those who have lost jobs due to improvements in productivity, technology and free trade as we transition to a knowledge and service economy.

Politicians must do a better job of this, as our recent election for president aptly demonstrates. But the loss of truck driver jobs is not an acceptable reason to prevent autonomous trucks on our roads.

Steve Gursten

About Steve Gursten

Attorney Steven Gursten is president of the Motor Vehicle Trial Lawyers Association and past president of the American Association for Justice Truck Accident Litigation Group. Steve has been named a Lawyers Weekly "Leader in the Law" for his efforts to prevent truck accidents and promote national truck safety. He was also a Michigan Lawyers Weekly "Lawyer of the Year" for a record settlement in a truck accident case, as well as for recovering the top auto and truck verdict in four of the past eight years. He is a "Top 100 Super Lawyer," is listed in Best Lawyers in America, and has been awarded an AV-rating by Martindale-Hubbell, which is the highest rating for legal ability and ethics. Steve speaks to lawyers throughout the country on truck accident litigation. He is a founding member of the Truck Accident Attorneys Roundtable, head of Michigan Auto Law, and has dedicated his legal career to making our roads safer.
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