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Daimler debuts autonomous truck – but what about emergencies?

August 23, 2014 by Steven M. Gursten

driverless truck daimler

As driverless cars come closer to fruition, the technology is now taking a big leap toward the driverless commercial truck.

I’ve been watching this development closely.  As a past-president of the American Association for Justice (AAJ) Truck Litigation Group, and as a founding partner of the Truck Accident Attorneys Roundtable, the issue is certainly one of interest.  There are some, including myself, who have said that autonomous vehicle will probably first be adopted on a large scale with the commercial transportation industry, instead of with passenger cars. I feel this way because of the money that could be saved. Today, there’s a serious shortage of experienced and qualifed truck drivers that’s only expected to grow. Also, think of the huge sums that could be realized in a world without truck accidents, and where there are no hours of service that limit how long trucks can be on the road.  Think of a world where fleets can run around the clock as long as they are being maintained.

And toward this end, Daimler has now introduced the world’s first “autonomous” truck — a specially built Mercedes-Benz Actros 1845 designed to run without the active participation of a driver, according to a recent article on Land Line, “Daimler debuts ‘autonomous’ truck.”

The company demonstrated what it calls “Future Truck 2025” to 300 journalists on an unopened section of autobahn near Magdeburg, Germany, on July 3. Daimler executives stated that although the autonomous truck is real, it’s not expected to be on the market until 2025.

The truck is equipped with technology to monitor its surroundings. The technology, called “Highway Pilot,” involves information shared wirelessly among vehicles in the area, and a virtual cloud of data that will enable autonomous vehicles to factor in what sensors on other vehicles can perceive, such as enabling vehicles to see around curves and beyond traffic jams.

My own hopes are that autonomous vehicles will save hundreds of thousands of lives in a world without car accidents (of course, that means no car accident lawyers too, but I’d happily find another job if that were to happen), and where these vehicles can help drivers be more productive and safe than we can even imagine today.

Driverless trucks and safety

They say autonomous trucks will be more fuel efficient and safer than today’s trucks. But as the caption in the photo provided by Daimler in the Land Line article reads,” When not driving the autonomous truck, the driver turned his special seat 45 degrees from the steering wheel and spent most of the time looking at an iPad.”

In addition, Daimler executives suggested they might add a desk at which the driver could carry out other duties while the truck drives itself.

So, if the driver has his eyes on the iPad and is 45 degrees from the steering wheel, what happens in case of an unanticipated emergency, such as a child who steps out onto the street?

Perhaps that is how autonomous vehicles will one day be able to operate, but it is not now. And while these vehicles may be technologically advanced,  they’re not accident proof  – yet.

Even when these autonomous  vehicles are more fully adapted, there will be many accidents caused by autonomous vehicles, including those that fail. I’ve addressed the liability issue in my blogs, such as, “Driverless cars: Who’s liable in an accident?”

It’s hard to write today and envision exactly how a truck driver (would they even be called a truck driver?) can prevent a terrible truck accident while operating an autonomous vehicle.  But I know one way NOT to prevent a terrible crash is to recline your seat 45 degrees and keep your eyes on an iPad.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Rules will have to be adopted to this new technology.

And the laws must hold truck drivers or whatever we will call them in the future accountable, as well as the companies they work for, with the training and operating of an autonomous truck in case of an emergency or an impending accident.

Another way, as I’ve written, is to have a general fund of insurance coverage for autonomous vehicles, and to not not exempt the manufacturers from product liability lawsuits, should a death or injury be shown to be preventable.  Living through the GM Ignition Switch litigation and the hidden documents of today, one can only imagine temptations in a future with a giant new technology and enormous potential profits for the companies first to gain competitive entry.

And as an aside but an important one, one other important way to protect people today and tomorrow is to raise minimum truck liability insurance limits up to inflation— before autonomous trucks hit the roads. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this particular safety crisis, it’s been 30 years since the amount of bodily injury and liability insurance minimums for truck and bus companies has been adjusted. The minimum insurance limits for trucks and buses has still remained $750,000. To understand how under-compensated victims of serious truck accidents are, if that $750,000 was adjusted for inflation, the amount would be approximately $4.4 million today.

Note that Daimler was careful not to use the expression “driverless” in its introduction. According to the company, the ability of the truck to guide and control itself on the highway was to relieve the driver of stress, not to replace the trucker.

– Photo courtesy of Daimler

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