Will Bellingham be safer when autonomous semi-trucks come through town? (Part 2)

Though there are myriad possible benefits to self-driving trucks, there will also be the inevitable negative aspects in the reality of such a technology.

Safety is one of the most obvious obstacles a self-driving truck will face. There have been recent accidents involving self-driving cars, so imagine a semi-truck with the same limitations involved in a vehicle wreck in Bellingham. Large, heavy trucks do so much more damage than a passenger vehicle.

For example, consider a recent car accident where an uber vehicle hit a pedestrian at full-speed. The collision was caused because the software in the car that detected obstacles such as small road debris was set to high, and ignored the pedestrian. This was simply a human error, which is behind the vast majority of all car accidents. Imagine the damage a truck could do in the same scenario, all because of a programmer's seemingly minor oversight.

It is obvious to anyone with a computer or smartphone that bugs in software exist, and many of them are not spotted before the product is released to the public. It's one thing to have an annoying series of updates to your phone, but the stakes are astronomically higher if those bugs are not worked out in a self-driving vehicle or truck.

A self-driving truck will lack the human driver's intuition that allows us to detect, analyze and adapt to situations. At this time, there simply is no technological solution to this limitation. Here's a scenario that I never would have guessed, but obviously could happen: a self-driving truck is driving late on a quiet highway. Two cars appear, and one moves to the front of the truck, the other behind. Boxing it in, they slow the truck down to a stop. Thieves emerge from the two cars, break open the truck trailer doors and steal all its contents and expensive parts.

Can the truck protect itself? It is designed to stop in such a scenario, and be unable to adapt to this situation like a human driver could.The truck could not be programmed to avoid this scenario and still be programmed to avoid colliding with cars boxing it in. Certainly there can be a way to alert authorities, and of course eventually the truck route monitors would realize there was a stop, but their response would be long after the fact. Hackers will create a huge risk for autonomous trucks, to simply steal their contents, or far worse.

Last but not least, we have to assume that the truck's owner will have insurance that handles any personal injury cases against semi-trucks. Those firms will have to be uniquely suited to the complexities of the laws that will need to be written to handle these types of claims, familiar with the technology and its limitations, and have experts on hand who can advise. However, we still cannot know every possible scenario that will arise in the implementation of this technology. Nor will we know how to prevent what will likely be some devastating truck accidents.

Until then, drive safely, and never drive distracted or drunk. Even a robot is a better driver than a distracted or drunk driver.


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