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Will self driving trucks be used to extend Hours of Service?

Written by Steve Gursten Posted November 3rd, 2016

As Otto teams with Budweiser to deliver its first haul via self driving truck, our truck accident attorneys discuss how new technology will extend HOS for truckers

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Those enjoying a Budweiser in Colorado Springs may have a robotic truck to thank for the cold beer.
Last week, self driving truck start-up Otto teamed with Anheuser-Busch to successfully deliver a tractor-trailer full of beer from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs, according to published reports.  While our attorneys have speculated in various media interviews about whether the commercial trucking industry will be one of the first or one of the very last to adopt autonomous driving technology in trucks, it’s clear that this change is coming.

As for the Otto trip, for most of the 120-mile trip, the truck’s “driver” left his seat and scanned the highway from the comfort of the sleeper berth. An Otto video of the trip shows the confounding and amazing image of a large, 53-foot trailer chocked full of 2,000 cases of Bud, making its way down I-25 with nobody in the cab:

For those of you unfamiliar with the latest huge development in bringing self driving trucks to fruition sooner than later, Otto, a self-driving truck startup founded by Google Car was recently purchased by Uber for $670 million.

According to published reports, 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 recently purchased for $1 billion, was charging $10,000 to add its autonomous-driving sensors to cars.

Meanwhile, Otto’s half-dozen $140,000 Volvo VNL 780 cabs, capable of pulling 53-foot trailers, are fanning out across several U.S. states for open road testing, starting with the Budweiser delivery.
A recent article on USA Today outlining the first delivery from the self-driving truck states that the technology may be used to extend driver hours:

“The concept … will 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.”

Last week, I posed the following question in my blog post, “Otto Uber deal poses the question: Do autonomous trucks need drivers?”

As I discussed last week, the rub of autonomous adaptation of commercial trucks is that 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 increased size and weight still require a trained, experienced driver in the cab, as OOIDA and other truck industry groups say is still necessary?

Our own Roundtable attorneys believe self driving trucks will require an extension of federally regulated hours of service (HOS).  We foresee the HOS being amended as this safety technology becomes ubiquitous.

Until the technology is perfected, commercial trucks will surely need to have competent, fully trained, experienced and healthy truck drivers at the wheel. In the early stages of implementation, there will inevitably be malfunctions, mistakes, and kinks to work through, and that means innocent people will still be killed or seriously injured in crashes involving large commercial trucks. The hope is that the numbers of people injured and killed in truck accidents involving self driving trucks will one day be a fraction of the numbers we see today.  Between now and then, developers of this amazing safety technology still have an immense responsibility to protect the public.

I’ve written before that 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,” HOS violations and truck drivers who have been awake for over 24 hours (as in the Tracy Morgan-Walmart truck crash) in a world where there are no humans behind the wheel to cause these human errors that result in serious, often deadly commercial truck and bus accidents.

We look forward to that day.

Steven Gursten Photo

About Steve Gursten

Attorney Steven Gursten is president of the Motor Vehicle Trial Lawyers Association and past president of the American Association for Justice Trucking Litigation Group. He has been named a Michigan Lawyers Weekly "Leader in the Law" for his efforts to prevent truck accidents and promote national truck safety. Steve was also a Michigan Lawyers Weekly "Lawyer of the Year" for a record settlement in a truck accident case. He has received the top reported truck accident jury verdict and top reported truck accident settlement in Michigan for multiple years, according to published year-end compilations of all jury verdicts and personal injury settlements by Michigan Lawyers Weekly. He has been named a "Top 50 Super Lawyer," by SuperLawyers, 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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