- Tesla, Otto, and other tech firms are developing autonomous trucks.
- Legal experts and trucking analysts worry that current liability laws aren’t adapting to self-driving trucks.
- Current laws don’t allow a truck manufacturer to be sued if it designed or manufactured a truck that kills someone.
Tech leaders and financiers alike are confident that self-driving trucks will become the norm as early as the next decade, phasing out around 1.8 million truck driving jobs and saving the industry an estimated $300 billion.
As for the actual truck drivers and those who analyze the industry, many are surprisingly nonchalant. They’re skeptical that this much-hyped technology has any looming effect.
“I think we’re actually still a pretty long way from that technology being fully baked,” Andrew Lynch, the cofounder and president of Columbus-based supply-chain company Zipline Logistics, told Business Insider.
“We’re not even close to prepared,” Lynch said, for those trucks to function on the highway – a pre-existing system that’s clogged with human drivers.
Donald Broughton, the managing partner of transportation analysis firm Broughton Capital, said it’s true that self-driving trucks won’t be barreling down the highway in the next five years.
But it’s not just because of kinks in the technology – it’s also because of legal complications.
‘We have to change the liability law’
There’s no clear path to suing a self-driving truck who hits and kills those outside of the truck. In 2016, 3,326 passenger vehicle occupants, motorcyclists, bicyclists, and pedestrians died in large truck crashes. (Around 80% of car-truck crashes were caused by the passenger vehicles, not the truck.)
In cases where the trucker was at fault, the plaintiff bar might sue the truck driver, the trucking company who hired the driver, and potentially the company who hired the trucking company, Broughton said.
Following current liability laws, the bar cannot sue the freight company who made the equipment.
“If the self-driving truck runs into somebody, there’s no truck driver to sue,” Broughton told Business Insider. “We have to change the liability law to include and indemnify the maker of the truck.”
And lawmakers haven’t tried to make the law inclusive of autonomous technology companies. A bill currently pending in Congress, called the AV Start Act, would not allow people who are badly injured while riding a self-driving car to sue the maker of the technology or take part in a class action lawsuit.
Disputes would have to be settled in private arbitration instead, which CNN reported in March tends to favor the company over consumers.
“The nightmare scenario is that someone is hurt because of a defect and it’s dealt with through a confidential arbitration proceeding that nobody knows about, and then more people are hurt because no one found out about it,” Ed Walters, who teaches robotics law at Georgetown Law and Cornell Tech, told CNN. “Congress could stick up for the right to sue by prohibiting these kind of clauses, but so far they haven’t.”
As for the trucking industry, there’s no law at all that allows for manufacturers to be held responsible for failures in self-driving technology. That could put everyone who drives along big trucks in danger, should self-driving freight become the norm.
“Everybody is talking about, ‘Ooh, it’s cool technology,’ without considering the legal component,” Broughton told Business Insider.