The release of the Freightliner Inspiration autonomous truck took place with a great deal of pizazz, here in the US, this week. Apart from the YouTube clips and TV news stories, there was also a great deal of comment on social media about just what the implications are of the introduction of such a truck onto our highways.
Of course, there is the usual rubbish about banning driverless trucks from the highway and drivers being deprived of their jobs. However, there is one issue which does need to be addressed, and that is just who or what is liable if there is an accident.
If the truck is set to autonomous mode and is involved in a crash, is the driver, who has handed over the responsibility for handling the truck to the autonomous system, to blame and liable for any penalty? Is the manufacturer who designed and built the system in any way at fault, if there is a glitch and damage, or worse, is caused?
Similarly, who is responsible for the actions of the truck? The system which is doing all the work of threading the truck down the roads, or do we look to the person who turned on the system and allowed it to do its work? On the face of it, these are valid points to make and the whole subject is fraught with unforetold consequences.
In fact, experiencing the new truck and riding in the cab on a public road, while the truck is driving itself autonomously, gives you a different perspective. Making the driver responsible is probably the way the courts are going to see it. Seeing the Highway Pilot in action is enough to convince you the driver does remain in the box seat when it comes to blame.
The system does all of the driving, by steering, accelerating, changing gear etc. This is a quantum leap from where we are today, but, looked at rationally, it is simply an extension of what we already have on our trucks today.
The first steps in automation were with cruise control and ABS. With both systems, the driver is allowing a system on the vehicle manage a safety related behaviour. The cruise keeps the speed up to the set level and the ABS turns the brakes on and off to suit the conditions in a braking event.
The next stage in automation includes systems like adaptive cruise control, where the truck is kept at a selected distance behind the vehicle in front and will slow down or stop, automatically, if needed. Then we have stability control which takes over the power going to the wheels and the braking system to stop a truck getting into trouble, avoiding rollovers and dangerous skids.
By the time we get to this level, the truck itself has quite a lot of autonomy in strictly controlled areas. In these circumstances, the driver is still deemed to be in control of the truck and liable for any damage.
Going to the next step, and autonomy, is not very far. Just add a lane keeping device, just like those already fitted in trucks in Australia, and you are very close to the new release. The only difference is, when the truck drifts towards the edge of a lane, the steering will turn it back into the middle, instead of sounding an alarm.
When you look at it like this, this small step has not taken us away from the driver being responsible. The system is just another safety aid for the driver and should be seen as such. It’s just a matter of being rational, but how often is the trucking industry rational?