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Let's talk about self-driving semi-trucks in Texas

The industry for self-driving commercial trucks is growing, but skepticism remains from safety advocates and others who do not believe the technology has been scaled enough to protect manned vehicles on Texas highways.

“I think we have a couple of big concerns,” Dallas attorney Amy Witherite said. “First off, we are going to see significant increases in litigation while this technology is being developed, and I would start with we don’t know, as consumers, which vehicles are self-driving. The police reports don’t reflect if a vehicle was self-driving or not.”

And in Texas, the developers and manufacturers of self-driving trucks have carte blanche when it comes to testing and operating assets on state roads. Signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott in 2017, SB 2205 “explicitly” allows “an automated motor vehicle to operate on highways in the state of Texas, with or without a human operator,” provided it is “equipped with a recording device that may record velocity, location data, steering or brake performance.” The operators of such vehicles must also ensure all traffic laws are obeyed.

“So, as lawyers, I believe we are going to see many petitions — we call them 202 petitions — filed to do discovery to see if you have a lawsuit,” Witherite said. “I think with these large vehicles, we are going to see more of these 202 pleadings to determine if this is a self-driving truck or not. With a self-driving truck, there are many different defendants — not just the driver and the trucking company but the software developer.”

That is because, according to SB 2205, when an automated driving system “capable of operating without a human driver” is active, the owner of the system is considered to be the vehicle operator “for the purpose of assessing compliance with traffic laws, regardless of whether the person was physically in the vehicle.”

“Right now, it seems like the trucking industry has a blanket license to drive on the roads with no restrictions, no guardrails, nothing to protect people like you and me who are sitting next to these trucks,” Witherite said. “The Texas Legislature has not provided any safety protections for the consumers. They’ve simply allowed Texas highways to become a testing ground for unproven technology with up to 80,000-pound vehicles. And when a wreck occurs, the probability of it becoming catastrophic is huge.”

Neither the Texas Department of Public Safety nor the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration compiles data on autonomous vehicle accidents.

“We’ve had a fatality in Texas, and I know we’ve had fatalities in California and a number of accidents in the Austin area with self-driving cars,” Witherite said. “We had a self-driving truck accident outside of Ennis. I think technology as a whole will continue to make us safer. But we’re talking about 80,000-pound vehicles with unproven technology and no known safety redundancies with this new software and technology.”

John Hayes, founder of California-based Ghost Autonomy, acknowledged that software developers have more work to do in this space.

“Our belief with everyone we’ve talked to in the auto industry is that somebody has to break out and find the way to do very large-scale testing of software,” he told DX. “When you look at the fully automated vehicles, they are extraordinarily expensive to run. How software is normally built, it is not unique to the auto industry. You do as much testing around things you can think of but, ultimately, you need to run the software a lot to see if it’s going to work.”

One company planning to take advantage of SB 2205 is Pittsburgh-based Aurora, which will roll out its self-driving semis on I-45 between Dallas and Houston later this year, the Associated Press reported.

“We want to be out there with thousands or tens of thousands of trucks on the road,” Aurora CEO Chris Urmson told AP. “And to do that, we have to be safe. It’s the only way that the public will accept it. Frankly, it’s the only way our customers will accept it.”

The Aurora trucks each include 25 camera, laser, and radar sensors, according to AP. However, that does not necessarily ease the fears of some drivers.

“It sounds like a disaster waiting to happen,” Kent Franz, a high school basketball coach in Chandler, Oklahoma, told AP. “I’ve heard of the driverless cars — Tesla, what have you — and the accidents they’ve been having. Eighteen-wheelers? Something that heavy, relying on technology that has proven it can be faulty? Doesn’t sound very comfortable to me.”

Patti Pierce, a retired accountant from Plano, also weighed in on self-driving trucks, according to AP.

“I don’t want to be on the road with them right now,” she said. “I like the gadgets in my car, but I’m not sure the technology is good enough right now to have a truck that drives itself.”

Witherite shared a similar opinion.

“My car certainly has crash avoidance, where it will brake for me if I’m not paying attention,” she said. “I do think technology has a place and a positive role to play in the trucking industry, as the age of truck drivers is over 50 years old. I do think there’s a place on the road for it. But it appears we are careening head-on … without the proper safety precautions being taken and without the development of the technology. That’s the problem today, and we’re testing them on the busiest highways in the country between Dallas and Houston.”

Aurora has tested its equipment for seven years. This year, it will begin hauling loads between terminals for Uber Freight, FedEx, Werner, and other companies, AP reported.

“The automotive industry has some very longstanding standards, but this software in automotives is new,” Hayes said. “As a result, you don’t have industry consensus standards for software because a lot of it is based on the eye.”

While Aurora is using automated trucks during its Texas rollout this year, other companies are using self-driving trucks with trained personnel in the passenger seats.

“You also have remote operation of vehicles,” Hayes told DX. “You see that on construction sites. Maybe one operator runs three or four trucks instead of one. If you scratch below the surface, you’ll find that even if no one is in the vehicle, there’s probably some form of remote operation. The thing that gives me pause is, how does the software know what it doesn’t know? Having it generally detect an abnormal environment is, today, an unresolved problem.”

AP reported that journalists observing Aurora’s testing of its self-driving trucks said they avoided simulated road obstacles, including a blown tire, a horse, and pedestrians. However, the trucks were in a controlled environment and operating at 35 mph. Outside of controlled environments, the trucks are being tested alongside human drivers on Texas freeways at speeds of at least 65 mph.

“We’ve seen certain types of problems like should I drive over this thing on the road or through this or under that?” Hayes said. “Visual-language models are going to be important to address unusual things in the environment and end-to-end models. These two approaches solve different problems — trying to avoid the education problem and bugs in the software. Autonomous driving is clearly the next frontier for the automotive industry as it evolves to meet consumer demand.”

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