Technologist - The FindLaw Legal Technology Blog

Is the World Ready for Self-Driving Semi Trucks?

While we've seen quite a bit of talk about self-driving cars and "taxis" this year, one of the self-driving vehicle industry's greatest challenges has been waiting on the side of the road: Self-driving semi trucks.

For most drivers, driving next to, or in front of, an 80,000 pound semi truck is one of the more frightening parts of being on any roadway. However, that fright likely pales in comparison to driving near an 80,000 pound semi truck that doesn't even have a driver in the cab. While autonomous driving systems are continually being refined and getting better with each successive test and software/hardware update, the stakes, and thus regulatory hurdles, for self-driving trucks are a little bit higher.

Regulatory Requirements

Given the concerns over giant vehicles operating without a human driver in cab, true autonomy for autonomous semi trucks might be a ways off. Recently, the state of Nevada okayed testing for Daimler's self driving semi, with special permits, but the state still requires the autonomous truck to have a human driver in the cab who can take over in case of emergency. Until the self driving passenger vehicles can truly be considered safe, this seems to be a major hurdle for the self driving truck industry.

Another regulatory hurdle involves truck driver restrictions on hours. Generally, truckers are prohibited from driving more than 11 hours per day in order to help prevent driver fatigue. However, given that a self driving truck would not be as demanding to drive, a loosening of these restrictions could certainly provide a benefit, particularly for the truckers who might find their pay decreased due to the new tech, despite there being a current shortage of truckers.

Practical Matters

Practically, when it comes to self driving trucks, safety is the biggest concern. Along with the obvious safety risk to the public, there are also risks when it comes to the cargo these trucks will be hauling. Despite being self-driving, these trucks would still need to stop for various reasons for various lengths of time. For instance, if a tire blows out, the truck may be stranded on the side of the road until assistance can arrive (unless the truck has a robotic one). A stranded truck could be a sitting duck for thieves.

Tesla recently unveiled an electric semi truck and shocked the world when it announced that the truck would have a self-driving feature with convoy capabilities. However, one major issue critics have cited when it comes to electric semi trucks is the weight restrictions imposed by law. This is an issue because the weight of the batteries needed to power the truck cut into the overall weight restriction rather drastically, though dropping a driver might help add a few more pounds back. 

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