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The Impact of Autonomous Vehicles

We’ve all seen science fiction shows where cars have autopilot. However, this may actually be a fairly good representation of our future and not just a far-fetched dream. Companies have already produced fully-functional, self-driving vehicles. But what is the true meaning of such a change? How will it impact our nation? There could be big changes coming for truckers, lawyers, and drivers on roads all across the nation.

Understanding Autonomous vs. Driverless

One problem with the sci-fi picture is that it’s pretty inaccurate. Modern “self-driving” vehicles aren’t unmanned and completely independent, despite what TV shows tell us. These trucks will still need outside handling, especially for poor driving conditions or for complicated maneuvers like exiting and entering highway ramps and backing up toward loading docks. These vehicles are not truly self-driving machines.

This isn’t to say there won’t be 100% independent machines in the future but, for now, there will still be “drivers,” whether their hands are on the wheel or not. This misconception fuels a lot of unnecessary apprehension about autonomous vehicles being on the road. Understanding the true difference is the first step to understanding their impact on both the nation and the trucking industry.

The Companies Behind Autonomous Vehicles

Even though it may seem like a fairly new concept, autonomous vehicles have been tested for years. In fact, one of the first companies to put self-driving cars to work was Google. The technology giant takes advantage of self-driving systems in their Maps cars, which travel all over the world, taking pictures of streets and roads for a firsthand look at the scenery. It’s a great example of how useful self-driving technology can be for companies on a variety of roads.

Tesla has already begun producing autonomous passenger vehicles. All current models of their cars are already being self-driven in a variety of situations. With newer, more affordable models coming out each year, it’s possible that autonomous driving will be a bigger part of our future than we think – and it may start earlier than we think, too.

Even Uber, the renowned modern-day taxi service, is experimenting with autonomous technology. Testing began in 2016, and “driverless cars” could be part of their fleet in the near future. They could increase safety for customers all over the roads.

How Self-Driving Vehicles Work

But how do these vehicles manage to stay on the road?
Self-driving vehicles would probably seem like magic to someone who saw them even a few decades ago. Luckily, there are much more stable and reliable forces than magic that go into the operation of such a machine: radar, cameras, servo motors, and GPS mapping. Here’s a breakdown of these mechanisms.

Radar is critical for autonomous vehicles. Designers use it to detect the position of objects around them, whether they’re vehicles or stationary obstacles. To put it simply, radar is a type of radio. The device constantly emits waves into the environment. These waves bounce off objects matter around them – the ground, pedestrians, or structures – and feed it back into the device. This feedback is measured and calculated to give the range, velocity, and angle of any objects in relation to the vehicle. It’s very similar in concept to the echolocation bats use.

Cameras are also vital to keep self-driving trucks safely on the road. Many newer passenger vehicles use them in accident prevention systems. The device monitors objects in front of the truck and can detect things like potholes and debris in addition to other vehicles.

Servo motors are responsible for the physical labor of driving the truck. These electric power sources take over during the autonomous driving modes and move the steering wheel. They’re calibrated to the computer and sensors all over the truck to provide instant feedback and steer as needed.

GPS tracking is the final piece of the self-driving puzzle. Autonomous trucks can rely on satellite signals to determine their exact location and projected path. It’s also possible that these trucks could be synced with live traffic information and help the driver plan an alternate route around accidents or dangerous conditions, further improving efficiency.

The Benefits of Autonomous Trucks

One of the most important things about autonomous vehicles is their ability to reduce fuel costs. These vehicles can accelerate, decelerate, and maintain speed without the inconsistencies you may see with regular drivers. This can reduce fuel consumption by as much as 7 percent, which adds up to enormous savings over the course of a year.

Autonomous trucks also have the potential to drive for 24 hours straight; they would only need to stop to refuel. They do not need sleep breaks or lunch. Two drivers could potentially rotate operating the truck and stay on the road much longer than the 11 hours mandated by the government. This increases the efficiency of the trip and could be a big factor in reducing shipping costs.

The biggest benefit of autonomous trucks, however, is the safety improvements. According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, there were more than 410,000 accidents involving large trucks. Of those 82,000, or 20 percent, resulted in at least one injury.

Truckers are not always at fault, but things like driver fatigue, distraction, driving too close to the edge of the road, and loss of control after a blowout or other event could be stopped by self-piloting vehicles.

Self-Driving Trucks and Trucker Jobs

The trucking industry is the single largest in our nation. More than 8.9 million people are employed through trucking, with 3.5 million of them serving as drivers. Naturally, many of those individuals are concerned about what self-driving trucks would do to their jobs.

However, there’s no reason to worry. In fact, autonomous vehicles could actually help improve conditions for drivers. First of all, there is a massive truck driver shortage at the moment. The deficit measured around 38,000 drivers at the end of 2014. That number is expected to rise sharply, primarily because current drivers will be retiring. It is predicted that the industry will need to hire 89,000 drivers a year for the next decade.

Autonomous trucks can help fill these positions because they make driving safer and more comfortable. Even if fully-automated vehicles were in the future, it would still be hard for them to catch up with the deficit enough to threaten current truckers’ jobs.

The efficiency of self-driving trucks is another benefit for the drivers. When the company spends less on fuel, they’ll be able to provide bigger paychecks for the people behind the wheel. Plus, of course, less fuel used means fewer emissions and an overall healthier environment.

Self-Driving Liability

For most people, the biggest concern with self-driving trucks is liability. Despite the fact that they’re generally safer, accidents do happen. These vehicles will still rely on input from the drivers, and, in some cases, the reaction won’t be quick enough. In addition, big truck crashes are often more serious for the other party (in a big truck/passenger car collision), so fatalities could occur as a result of mistakes. The question is, who is liable?

Technology is going faster than the law can keep up with, so it’s hard to ascertain liability. If the driver wasn’t actively piloting the truck, it wouldn’t be his or her mistake. Unless, of course, they were driving negligently and not paying attention when the system wanted them to take over. Still, most people feel as though the technology shouldn’t be on the road until it’s fully capable.

Complications abound. For instance, the carrier bought the truck and placed it on the road under their name, but perhaps they didn’t know the driver would be using auto pilot features? Or, perhaps the technology was not performing as it was intended?

The truth is that the carmakers will likely take responsibility for any problems with their autonomous vehicles. There was a Tesla Model S, for instance, which didn’t recognize a semi-truck as it pulled out. The driver was watching a movie and did not react in time, causing the vehicle to crash and kill him. He (like all self-driving car owners) was required to sign an agreement when he purchased the vehicle to always keep his hands on the wheel. In this case, Tesla was absolved of responsibility because it was known that this system required the driver’s attention in some situations.

Carmakers will still likely be liable in such situations, at least as the law stands. Thankfully, the risk of accidents is very low. The technology is designed to prevent problems, so designers feel confident in their own design. Fault attached to drivers will be much more complex – if they weren’t in control of the vehicle, how could they be the cause of the accident?

And finally, vehicle manufacturers can provide a psychological boost for the autonomous car market by standing behind their products. Studies show people are apprehensive about the presence of self-driving vehicles, so adding a warranty can ease their worries and increase the chance they’ll bring one home.

No matter what the future holds, it’s good to be prepared and informed. Autonomous vehicles are undoubtedly going to be a part of our future, so understanding their implications, design, and liability issues is crucial, especially for those industries where driving is their business.

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