Winter 2019

Autonomous Vehicles and the Commercial Transportation Industry

The age of traditional forms of trucking transportation may be coming to an end with the development of autonomous trucks. Companies are infiltrating the commercial transportation industry by introducing software and vehicles that are completely autonomous and do not require a human behind the wheel, or even inside the vehicle at all, begging the question as to how these advancements will affect the commercial transportation industry.

Naturally, the biggest potential effect is how autonomous trucks will factor in determining liability for accidents involving these vehicles. In addition to theories of pure negligence, theories of manufacturing and/or design defects in the autonomous trucks may become more commonplace in lieu of derivative claims of negligence such as negligent hiring and retention. Such a strategy could significantly alter the manner that these cases are litigated, as well as increase litigation costs. Moreover, there is a natural difficulty for a company to defend a pure negligence claim if there is no driver or human in the vehicle.

Outside of the potential effect on litigation, the transportation industry faces practical concerns with autonomous vehicles. Naturally, the first is the cost associated with these autonomous vehicles, particularly in light of the fact that such vehicles are an unknown quantity. There would need to be safeguards such as enhanced monitoring systems and cameras depicting the road from multiple angles. However, these increased costs would be counteracted by reducing the need for commercial drivers and the costs associated with said drivers.

The second consideration is the effect that autonomous (or partially autonomous) vehicles will have on the area of driver restrictions. Indeed, some vehicles, although autonomous, do require individuals to be present in the vehicle while it is operating. Federal regulations will need to evolve to address this gray area and provide the transportation industry with clarity so that companies can make an informed decision. For example, the federal regulations will need to clarify whether the current set of rules regarding driver hours and licensure apply for autonomous vehicles with an individual present in the vehicle or whether a new body of regulations will arise.

One thing is clear with the introduction of autonomous trucks; they are approaching rapidly and transportation companies, and the regulations for the industry, will need to quickly evolve to address this new development.

For more information about this article, please contact Landon Moyer at 571.612.5950 or