One rapidly growing field of study has been the development of self-driving vehicles. As recently as 2004, when DARPA issued their Grand Challenge to create an autonomous vehicle able to properly navigate a 142-mile course, no entries could make it through a full eight miles. Only 13 years later, a company called Embark Technology was successfully testing partially-automated trucks on appliance delivery runs across a 650-mile stretch of Interstate 10 from El Paso, Texas to Ontario, California. As the technology has advanced from a sputtering start through self-parking cars up to largely self-driving commercial trucks, one question has persisted: Who is responsible for the safety of the people on the road when the vehicles are driving themselves?
Trucks.com, in their coverage of the Embark test, showcases how far the technology has come. The trucks, which sometimes operated up to 300 miles on their own, only gave control to drivers for mandatory stops, the first few miles of the trip, and the final delivery. However, this was not a technological necessity as much as a legal one. With that arrangement, the trucks were classified as Level 2 automation according to the state of California, which prohibits fully automated testing on vehicles over 10,000 lbs. Embark’s goal with the tests, according to their Chief Executive, Alex Rodrigues, is to “provide a sustainable, efficient supply chain network for consumers and allow professional drivers the opportunity to be more productive and have a better quality of life while on the road.” The goal is not to replace any jobs in the market. Instead, the article explains that there is currently a shortage of professional trucks drivers and the gap is going to grow. Automated trucks are expected to fill that gap.
Five months before that article, the Texas Tribune covered our own state government’s response to the trend of automated vehicles. Senate Bill 2205, which Governor Greg Abbott signed off on in June of last year, clarified the freedom of companies to test automated vehicles on the roads in Texas, with some stipulations. The bill “requires driverless vehicles used on highways be capable of complying with all traffic laws, be equipped with video recording devices and be insured just like other cars,” and holds manufacturers responsible for any accidents if the systems haven’t been altered by anyone else. While many, including auto manufacturers, applauded the rule, AAA felt it didn’t go far enough. Their plan would have required the insurance policy to have a $1 million minimum coverage, and for a human operator to always be present in the vehicle.
As the technology continues to develop, the laws may need to adjust. We will continue to monitor the situation and help victims of truck accidents hold drivers, or manufacturers, responsible for the accidents they cause.