This article is a follow-up to “Five Reasons Not to Worry About Autonomous Trucks.”
When the autonomous Freightliner Inspiration Truck went into operation in May 2015, Wolfgang Bernhard of Freightliner’s parent company, Daimler AG, sang the praises of this new technology. He cited government data that indicated that 90 percent of truck crashes are caused by human error, much of it caused by fatigue.
“An autonomous system never gets tired, never gets distracted,” Bernhard said, “It is always on 100 percent.”
Despite addressing a very real concern, this technology could still stand further scrutiny. While it’s unlikely that an autonomous truck will gain self-awareness, Skynet-style, and lead fellow vehicles into revolt against their human overlords, there are scenarios that, while less far-fetched, are worrisome nonetheless.
1. The Effect on the U.S. Economy
According to the American Trucking Associations, the U.S. trucking industry employs more than 8.7 million people. If autonomous trucks replace human drivers on a massive scale, it’s not just the drivers who will take an economic hit — motels, rest stops, gas stations, and many other businesses will see their revenues decrease as autonomous trucks pass them by.
One of the major risks of autonomous trucks is the same one plaguing any other sector that uses the Internet: Cyber criminals can hack into their systems. Anything connected to the internet can be hacked, and imagine what a group of determined hackers can do to a fleet of trucks hauling precious cargo on the interstate.
3. Drivers Could Lose Their Skills
As autonomous trucks become more and more commonplace, human truck drivers could lose the abilities they’ve worked hard to attain. “I’m worried about drivers losing the skill to move an 80,000-pound rig… and back it up, and getting that freight delivered in a safe, effective, efficient manner is a great skill set,” said Paul J. Enos, CEO of Nevada Trucking Association. This scenario isn’t farfetched: In 2013, the Federal Aviation Administration released a report that found that automation-reliant airline pilots were losing the basic skills necessary to control an aircraft in the event of an emergency — such as the one Captain Chesley Sullenberger experienced in 2009, prompting him to land his aircraft on New York City’s Hudson River and save everyone onboard.
4. Who Do You Sue?
Who’s legally responsible when an autonomous truck has an accident? Right now, these vehicles are only legal in Nevada, but as that changes, it could create an insurance nightmare for any trucking company operating autonomous vehicles across state lines. And is the driver responsible, or the company that created the technology, or the trucking company?
5. 18-Wheel Bombs
In 2014, the FBI issued an internal report that illustrated what a boon autonomous vehicles could be to criminals, terrorists, and other malicious actors. In addition to the scenario of criminals shooting at police from self-driving getaway cars, the report said that autonomy could turn a vehicle into “a potential lethal weapon,” such as a truck packed with explosives and programmed to plow into a populated area.
As with any new technology, there are unknown factors that nobody’s thought of yet, and those will emerge only after the trucks have been adopted on a widespread scale. This makes their initial rollout in Nevada a prudent idea. The state has a small population, so there will be few people endangered — if any — while the kinks get worked out.
It’s also probable that when other states adopt autonomous trucks, they’ll follow Nevada’s lead and issue special license plates that indicate to other motorists that the truck is autonomous, giving them the opportunity to steer clear if they want to.
Lastly, these trucks will be regulated by the federal government so that across-the-board standards can be implemented, and so that the way they operate in California will be identical to the way they operate in Alaska, Maryland, or Wisconsin. That will take time — time to fine-tune the technology and turn it into something we can share the roads with, without worry.