Ask anyone in the transportation industry, and you’ll hear that self-driving vehicles are a matter of “when,” not “if.” It’s likely that you’ve heard about the work that Tesla and other manufacturers have done to create self-driving passenger cars. But there’s as much interest in self-driving trucks, even if they don’t get as much attention.

In fact, as Business Insider reports, one company has been testing its self-driving trucks on limited routes since 2017. Now this company, TuSimple, has announced its plans to build a nationwide network by 2024. Advocates claim such a network of self-driving trucks would lead to cost savings as well as improved safety.

Self-driving vehicles are still imperfect

In the world of self-driving trucks, the best news is often no news. The companies that manufacture these vehicles want them to operate quietly, without accidents and without headlines. Largely, they do.

However, even as TuSimple shared its vision for the future, Freight Waves pointed out that a TuSimple truck was involved in an accident last fall in Arizona. This accident serves as a reminder that self-driving trucks are still unable to respond safely to everything that happens on the road. Perhaps more importantly, Freight Waves also pointed out that TuSimple waited nearly a year before it reported the incident. And this reminds us just how much is still unclear about self-driving vehicles and their safety issues.

Already, the trucking industry is a complex one, subject to many rules and regulations. In its 2019 Self-Driving Safety Report, which reads more like a marketing brochure, TuSimple hints at some ways self-driving trucks may further complicate commercial trucking:

  • Potential failures in object detection and response systems
  • Degrees of driver liability in semi-autonomous vehicles
  • The roles and degrees of liability of Safety Operators and systems engineers
  • Training and hiring requirements for Safety Operators
  • Potential flaws in the vehicle’s cybersecurity
  • Post-crash response and data retention

The hope is that self-driving trucks will lead to safer roads. And they may. As TuSimple’s report notes, nearly one-third of all truck accidents involve some failure on the driver’s part. Self-driving trucks can cut down on crashes that owe to driver fatigue, drug use or distraction. But they may make it harder for accident victims to get the recovery they deserve.

Truck accidents already involve more layers of fault and liability than car crashes. So, as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) notes that lawmakers still need to address liability concerns for self-driving vehicles, it seems likely they’ll include even more layers of legal complexity.

What should Louisiana drivers expect?

Louisiana’s lawmakers have already passed early legislation to allow certain self-driving vehicles to travel along state roads. Operators need to apply and follow certain reporting requirements.

This means self-driving trucks are coming. It’s not a matter of “if.” It’s a matter of “when.” Then, because the roads are imperfect systems, there are two questions that follow: How safe and responsive will these trucks actually be? And who will take responsibility when things go wrong?