Semi-Autonomous Truck Convoys Appear Unnecessarily Dangerous at First Glance

Jeffrey CarrMarch 30, 2021 6 minutes

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) made headlines at its recent Analysis, Research, and Technology Forum. The trucking industry regulator rattled many in the trucking industry with its aggressive forecast for driverless commercial vehicles deployment.

Most of the hoopla surrounded FMCSA's projection that fully autonomous trucks will hit the road sometime around 2030. Even more startling for many who make their livelihood behind the wheel, a Department of Transportation study projects that as many as half of all trucks could be driverless by 2040.

These aggressive timelines portray an industry on the verge of a rapid, dynamic shift, with machines replacing human drivers. Normally, I'm skeptical of bold claims at conferences like these, but while we can debate whether fully autonomous trucks are 20, 50, or 100 years from reality, less sophisticated versions of the technology will hit the highways starting as early as next year.

Rather than speculating about a future decades away, I intend to take a moment to discuss the changes happening right now and how they'll impact road safety.

Semi-Autonomous 18-Wheeler Convoys Are Set to Hit the Road in 2022

Lost in the news surrounding the future of fully autonomous 18-wheelers was a smaller item that a manufacturer of autonomous vehicle technology (AV) struck a deal in late 2020 to install its semi-autonomous technology in a Missouri-base trucking company's fleet. The deal calls for installation to begin in 2022 and continue through 2028. After its completion, more than 1000 trucks will possess the ability to take part in semi-autonomous convoys.

What Is a Semi-Autonomous Truck Convoy?

When installed, semi-autonomous AV technology enables a 2- or 3-truck convoy to be led by a single driver. Here's how it works.

A lead truck, equipped with the technology, is driven by a human. AV technology in the second truck guides that vehicle behind the lead truck. This permits the second truck's driver to rest in the truck's sleeper birth as the vehicle makes its way down the road, following the lead truck. When the lead driver needs a break, the two trucks switch roles.

What are the Advantages of a Semi-Autonomous Convoy?

Trucking companies potentially benefit from semi-autonomous truck convoys in two ways. First, it allows for more efficient use of both driver's time behind the wheel. Since the government limits how much time a trucker can drive throughout the day, as well as within the week, the ability to continue to move freight, while one driver rests is a game changer. Instead of wasting time looking for a place to rest, the road becomes a rest stop for the driver in the follow vehicle.

Another advantage to trucking companies is a fuel cost reduction. The trail vehicle gains increased fuel economy by drafting off of the lead truck. In an industry with margins as tight as trucking, even modest fuel savings greatly improve a company's ability to make money.

Drivers also benefit from this arrangement. Since companies pay truckers by the mile, drivers stand to make money while they sleep. Even if companies alter compensation packages to exclude this time, merely being able to cover more miles in a driver's allotted time means more money in a trucker's pocket.

How Could Semi-Autonomous Truck Convoys Impact Highway Safety?

While the potential gains from semi-autonomous truck convoys are so attractive that one trucking company is already buying into the technology, it's important to consider the safety implications of these convoys.

The Good News: AV Technology Improves 18-Wheeler Safety

Many people may not be aware of the fact, but most leading trucking companies already employ rudimentary AV technology in their fleets. Driver-assist technologies such as collision warning systems, which can even brake a truck to avoid a collision, and lane departure technology prevent crashes every day.

The collision warning technology in particular makes a difference on the roads today. One of the nation's largest trucking companies began installing that technology 10 years ago. As a result, the number of rear-end collisions involving their drivers decreased by 50%.

To be clear, results like these show that technology has an important role to play in improving not only trucking industry efficiency, but also safety. That's why I'm definitely not a Luddite when it comes to AV technology. At the same time, while innovation the is well-considered and properly implemented makes trucks safer, poorly designed technology potentially undermines those gains.

The Bad News: Semi-Autonomous Truck Convoys Dangers Are a Problem of Physics, not Technology

The reason that commercial truck accidents have the potential to cause so much devastation is the result of commercial trucks being larger than other vehicles on the road. This means that crashes involving commercial trucks impart much greater force than those involving passenger vehicles.

When looking at promotional material for semi-autonomous truck convoys, the big issue that jumps out is that instead of being responsible for a single 40-ton vehicle, the lead driver effectively pilots 2. When things are going well it brings a number of benefits, but should that driver make a catastrophic error, it doubles the amount of cargo and steel involved in a crash, which leads to more injuries in deaths.

This problem is particularly acute in rear-end collisions. This type of a crash makes up a significant portion of crashes where the 18-wheeler driver is at fault. Most of the time, the driver doesn't recognize that traffic slowed in front of him in time to brake. If the lead driver in the convoy makes this mistake, instead of 1 semi-truck slamming into the back of stopped traffic, there will be 2.

This significantly increases the risk that serious injuries or deaths will result. Not to mention, one of the deadliest types of collisions is when a vehicle rear-ends another 18-wheeler. Even when that vehicle is another large truck, there is a strong likelihood that the rear-end driver suffers catastrophic injuries or dies. Put simply, if the lead driver screws up, the follow driver in the sleeper birth is in trouble.

While collision avoidance technology can prevent some of these crashes, the presence of two trucks, instead of one, greatly increases the likelihood that the wrecks that occur will seriously injure or kill someone.

What Are the Potential Legal Consequences of Semi-Autonomous Convoy Wrecks?

Semi-autonomous truck convoys seem very likely to decrease crashes, due to better technology, but increase crash severity, by smashing together 2 40-ton trucks, as opposed to one. They will also increase the complexity of truck accident litigation, according to truck accident attorney Michael Grossman.

What Makes a Regular Truck Accident Case Complex?

According to Mr. Grossman, while every attorney should look into whether or not a product defect contributed to a truck accident, just to cover all their bases, it is rare for a defect to be the cause of a crash. This means that most truck accidents come down to determining whether the trucking company's actions or those of one of the other motorists were most to blame for the crash.

This requires certain skills and experts to gather all of the evidence. For instance, major commercial accidents usually require an expert to pull ECM data, an accident reconstructionist, and others with specific, technical expertise. This adds a level a complexity beyond a typical car crash.

All of this is needed just to sort out whether a passenger car or commercial vehicle accident caused the crash.

How Will Semi-Autonomous Truck Convoys Add to a Truck Accident Case's Complexity

The AV system in a semi-autonomous truck convoy likely adds another layer of complexity to truck crashes, according to attorney Michael Grossman.

He explains that any crash involving multiple trucks increases an investigation's complexity. Truck convoys assure that every crash will involve multiple commercial vehicles.

Another issue is that instead of sorting out fault among different trucking companies, it will also be necessary to investigate the role that AV technology played in the crash.

For instance, if a person dies as a result of the follow truck slamming into traffic, then an argument could arise that had a driver been behind the wheel, instead of in the sleeper birth, then the damaging event would not have happened. If it's the technology operating as designed that causes an injury or death, then an AV manufacturer might deserve some blame for creating that situation.

To sum it up, Mr. Grossman states that with more companies involved in a crash, it widens the scope of the investigation, in order to make ensure that any litigation targets the responsible company.

How Will Increasingly Complex Accident Investigations Affect Truck Accident Victims?

In the past, a victim's biggest impediment to resolving their truck accident case was that the trucking company knew the law and the victim didn't. The solution was simple, hire a lawyer.

With the explosion of data and a revolution in accident reconstruction, the complexity of truck accident cases meant that just knowing the law wasn't enough, that attorney now had to possess the most up-to-date knowledge of accident investigation.

Attorney Michael Grossman believes that semi-autonomous commercial truck convoys signal a further evolution towards an increasingly complex legal landscape. Further, since every crash will involve multiple commercial vehicles, these crashes will likely lie beyond the resources and skill set of most police investigators. In fact, as the complexity of these crashes increases, the number of qualified investigators falls.

While semi-autonomous convoy technology may reduce the number of commercial vehicle crashes, the possibility exists that those crashes that will occur will inflict more harm, and make it more difficult for victims to hold the wrongdoers accountable for any mistakes. That makes it a potentially dangerous technology.