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Self-Driving Uber Trucks Now Delivering Cargo on Arizona Highways: Can They Pose Risks to Public Safety?

semi truck

Autonomous vehicles propelled by self-driving technology are slated to change the future of our roadways, both for everyday motorists and commercial companies. Today, driverless vehicles are still mostly reserved for controlled testing, but there have been a number of successful trips and operations where the technology has been put to use on public roads, including the open highways of Arizona.

Earlier this month, Uber, which has made a name for itself in the rideshare service industry, announced that its self-driving trucks have been transporting cargo in Arizona for commercial customers for several months. The trucks, which made their first successful delivery more than a year ago, still have a licensed commercial driver behind the wheel prepared to take control in emergency situations, but Uber’s ultimate goal is to eliminate the need for human drivers in their rigs.

Uber’s vision for the future of trucking calls for the use of advanced autonomous technology in trucks that make long-haul, mostly highway trips, while still relying on human drivers to handle shorter routes and the final few miles of street driving prior to reaching commercial loading docks. Its commercial shipping service, Uber Freight, would use transfer hubs where self-driving trucks can be loaded with trailers for longer drive, and human-driven trucks loaded with cargo booked for shipping close by. Uber Freight functions similarly to the Uber app most are familiar with, connecting shippers with trucking operators rather than Uber handling deliveries themselves.

As we have discussed in recent blogs, the trucking industry is heavily invested in advancing driverless vehicle technology. That’s because autonomous trucks wouldn’t be subject to Hours-of-Service rules that limit trucker drive time in order to avoid fatigue, could boost efficiency, reduce emissions (especially with semi-autonomous platooning), and address major problems faced by the industry today, including a severe shortage of available truck drivers. With new technology, however, comes many questions and concerns, especially in terms of completely autonomous vehicles (no drivers), roadway safety, and truck accidents.

Some of the potential risks posed by self-driving trucks include:

  • Cybersecurity – As with any form of new technology, especially those involving electronic communications, there exist cybersecurity threats. In a time when computer hacking has become increasingly used in acts of hostility, crime, terrorism, and even warfare, there are concerns that driverless trucks could be susceptible to infiltration. In fact, researchers and cyber security experts have demonstrated how autonomous technology can be influenced by outside threats, and that there are also non-hacking computer vulnerabilities that could potentially interfere with self-driving technology systems. Commercial trucks are the largest and heaviest vehicles on our roads, and when compromised, could not only fail or malfunction, but also weaponized for ill-intent.
  • Inability to match human capabilities – Although autonomous technology has allowed machines to do many of the same tasks as man, there still remain issues involving how those tasks are executed and the fact that machines can’t ever fully replicate the capabilities of a human. As some critics note, human drivers have the ability to scan surroundings and anticipate certain issues, such as when a driver sees a stalled vehicle in the horizon with someone changing a tire, a vehicle smoking or on fire, a playing child that looks like they may soon dart into the road, items thrown out of windows of falling off cars, and other issues which autonomous technology may not be able to identify, differentiate, or predict possible outcomes in terms of intricacies. Computers may be advanced, but there are still risks that come with various situations human truckers might experience and be better able to handle. This is especially true in cases where trucks are fully autonomous, and have no driver in the cab who can take over.
  • Ethical issues in collision-critical situations – One of the greatest risks posed by automating transportation comes with solving issues that involve “dilemma situations,” or situations involving choice, particularly if they involve decisions between the lesser of two evils. When trucks are fully automated, computers will be left to “replicate” human moral behaviors. This can take the form of decisions between causing a collision with a human, animal, or inanimate object, and what should be spared and how. Such situations can also be complicated by intent, fault, and multiple people potentially in harm’s way. That’s not only a tricky ethical situation that can be made worse when computers calculate probability and risk ratios (i.e. should an action be taken that would kill a dog with near certainty or take an action that has a 5% chance of causing minor injury to a human), but also one that requires computers to not only accurately identify and distinguish between their potential decisions, but programmed in some way to make them appropriately. These types of issues are a major drawback to technology, and they ask important questions of our society when it comes to how we want vehicles to handle certain situations, what we can agree are our shared moral values, and how laws should be written.
  • Employment – Autonomous trucks, if and when they become fully autonomous, could significantly put drivers, trucking companies, and others who make a living off the trucking industry at risk of losing their jobs. With nearly 2 million long haul drivers and over 8 million trucking related jobs, that’s nothing to take lightly. Although some driverless trucks could still have drivers behind the wheel, their positions might become more like truck technicians than truck drivers, which also raises questions about whether that brings reduced wages for workers. Addressing these issues will be a difficult task for lawmakers, as putting people out of work is not something any public official wants. Some countries, like India, have openly announced their aversion to driverless vehicle technology simply for its impact on employment.
  • Liability issues – Self-driving cars raise further questions when it comes to developing the laws and regulations that will govern them, including laws involving liability. With few laws and even less case law involving accidents, injuries, and deaths caused by autonomous vehicles, answering questions as to whether trucking companies, technology manufacturers, or even regulators that allowed vehicles to operate autonomously should be held liable for injuries may come down to the courts.

Driverless technology will likely revolutionize our roads in the years to come, but at the present moment, there still remain a number of risks, concerns, and important questions to address when it comes to making them a common presence in public. As attorneys who have handled cases involving unique, challenging, and new issues for their time, our team at Biren Law Group knows that while asking important questions in the early stages of new developments and technology is important, finding the answers may come down to legal action after the fact – including personal injury cases handled on behalf of victims injured by self-driving trucks.