This year there have been significant technological advances in autonomous vehicles. Forbes says that the technology is estimated to drive a $70 billion industry as early as 2030. The trucking industry is in lock step with passenger vehicles in terms of autonomous transportation technology. Trucking industry experts predict that in the next five to 10 years most truck companies will slowly incorporate automated driving technology, according to The Atlantic.
Other law- and policymakers, including the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC), are also examining autonomous transportation technology, including truck platooning, and the potential impact the advances will have on local areas.
In its research, ARC found that the heavy truck industry (what it calls freight vehicles) is likely to be the first transportation sector to fully embrace autonomous and connected vehicle (vehicles equipped with internet access) technology. The group’s research focuses on the anticipated benefits such as better efficiency, reduced use of fossil fuels and enhanced safety. However, the study also recognizes the need for additional research and continuous testing of evolving technologies to prepare for the impact of the inevitable rise in automated transportation technology.
A number of states have relaxed their laws requiring drivers of heavy trucks to keep a safe and sometimes specified distance between the front of their trucks and the vehicles in front of them. The National Law Review explains that relaxing these laws is part of an effort to allow experimental testing of automated truck platooning electronic systems on the states’ roads and highways. The commercial trucking industry is the driving force behind this experiment because it stands to benefit from lower fuel costs. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) supports autonomous vehicle technology, arguing that it can potentially improve safety on the nation’s roads.
However, critics, including commercial trucking insiders, caution regulators and lawmakers to slow down efforts to mainstream the automated driving technology. Some of those critics voiced their concerns during a listening session convened by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) in Atlanta earlier this year. Participants included representatives from law enforcement agencies, various segments of the trucking industry, bus drivers and other representatives from the motor carrier industry, as well as automation technology developers.
Primarily, participants were concerned about the interface between the driver and technology. One driver questioned the capacity of automation to maintain control of a heavy truck during a tire blowout. Others expressed tentativeness about technology’s ability to avoid a collision when passenger vehicles cut in between the trucks. In addition to cybersecurity, audience members questioned whether developers are creating equally proactive measures to address technology interference from the environment and other outside sources. The clear takeaway from the session was “slow and steady wins the race.”
Truck platooning or driver assisted truck platooning (DATP) is semi-autonomous driving that takes place when two or three trucks are driven convoy-style by the driver in the lead truck using driver assisted technology. The trucks are equipped with radar and vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) technology that allow them to connect virtually. The V2V operates as a WiFi-like network, ExtremeTech explains. It allows the trucks to send messages to each other about what they are doing and to react accordingly. For example, if the lead truck activates its braking system, the other trucks in the convoy will also engage their braking systems.
The technology allows the trucks to follow each other at shorter distances that have been deemed less safe in traditional driving environments. The scenario is commonly known as tailgating and typically prohibited by law. Yet, shorter distances reduce the gap between the trucks and the aerodynamic drag or air resistance, which improves fuel efficiency, Trucking Info notes. It is a key focus of the heavy truck industry’s concerted lobbying efforts at the local, state and federal levels – efforts that are propelling the technology closer to mainstream commerce.
And, while NHTSA has been quick to welcome the technology because of its potential to save lives, according to the National Law Review, others urge a slower, more cautious approach. Beasley Allen lawyer Chris Glover, who handles trucking litigation in our Atlanta office, made this observation:
Without a doubt, autonomous vehicles will revolutionize transportation, especially in the heavy truck and freight industries. While it’s exciting this technology is within sight, it’s important to anticipate and thoroughly test products before rushing them to market. We often see consumers suffer the negative effects of hastily placing a defective product in mainstream commerce.
The ARC research summarizes several policy implications that are in line with regulators’ warnings to keep issues such as cybersecurity, data privacy, liability and related legal issues among the top considerations as the technology advances. Researchers and experts further emphasize the need for additional vehicle and technology testing and evaluation to assess the wide-ranging effects they will likely have on the other vehicles that share the road and traffic, generally.
As the present embraces the future that is no longer science fiction, heeding the advice to proceed with caution may be the best guidance to avoid as many unintended consequences of technology as possible. As with other emerging technology, it is too early to determine the trajectory of platooning. However, hastily rushing a new product to market frequently yields less than desired results and often sacrifices consumer safety.
Beasley Allen lawyer Chris Glover, who is in our Atlanta office, handles personal injury cases involving heavy trucks, log trucks, 18-wheelers and other commercial vehicles. For more information about these types of claims, contact Chris by email at Chris.Glover@BeasleyAllen.com or by phone at 800-898-2034. To get your free copy of An Introduction to Truck Accident Claims: A Guide to Getting Started, visit Chris Glover’s website at www.ChrisGlover-Law.com.
Sources: Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, Forbes, The Atlantic, Atlanta Regional Commission, ExtremeTech, Trucking Info and National Law Review
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