July 2015 | Commentary | Fine Print

Rise of the Machines: How Self-Driving Trucks Will Alter the Supply Chain 

Tags: Trucking, Transportation

Robert M. Baratta, Jr. is Partner, Litigation Practice Group, Freeborn & Peters, 312-360-6622

If you drive through Nevada on your family vacation this summer, you may glimpse what many believe is the future of trucking in this country. Daimler's Freightliner division unveiled its first self-driving truck licensed for commercial use in Nevada, one of the first states to permit autonomous passenger vehicles and the only one to license autonomous trucks for commercial purposes.

Daimler's announcement is just one in a series of recent media reports about this technology and its movement from sci-fi hype to mainstream. We are bound to see greater use of self-driving trucks to move goods. As that occurs, keep these ideas in mind:

  • Autonomous trucks reduce the burden of long-haul driving, one of the main sources of fatigue for drivers. This is expected to improve highway safety. A person must remain behind the wheel to operate the vehicle when the truck is not on the highway.
  • Autonomous trucks can reduce congestion, emissions, vehicle downtime, maintenance costs, and fuel consumption by four to seven percent. Even small improvements in efficiency can bring substantial savings for trucking companies.
  • Vehicle-to-vehicle communications let autonomous trucks lock on to the vehicle ahead of them, allowing "truck platooning" or "road trains." This technology reduces drag and improves aerodynamics and fuel efficiency.
  • Assuming autonomous trucks deliver on their promises of improved highway safety, the insurance industry is sure to embrace the technology. As with past technologies, such as airbags and anti-lock brakes, insurance industry support generally leads to quicker rollout. That said, how this technology may change insurance policy terms and rates has yet to be seen.
  • Successful use of autonomous trucks will likely encourage development of autonomous automobiles. The trucking industry is likely to push this technology in the near future , but as the technology improves, more investment will flow to other sectors, such as personal auto use.
  • The public has bcome largely immune to highway safety hazards caused by poor infrastructure or human fallibility. It remains to be seen how people will react to a serious accident or fatality resulting from this new technology. In general, the public is wary of new technologies. Public sentiment will play a substantial role in how quickly these trucks roll out.
  • To date, only Nevada has licensed autonomous trucks for commercial use. Accordingly, the true benefits will not be known until full-scale, cross-country trials are available. This will require other states to participate.

    It will be interesting to watch the changes these trucks will inevitably produce in regulations, insurance, and public sentiment. While the benefits may be plentiful, implementing autonomous trucks will undoubtedly result in hiccups along the way.

As with other new technologies, unforeseen consequences and challenges will surface and will need to be addressed. In the meantime, the next time you are traveling through Nevada, look for truck drivers reading a book or tablet while their truck rolls down the highway.

Bob Baratta is a member of the Transportation Team and partner in the Litigation Practice Group at Chicago-based law firm Freeborn & Peters LLP. To learn more about Freeborn's Transportation Team, visit The Freeborn Dispatch Blog, which provides coverage and legal analysis of timely transportation issues.






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