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Semi-autonomous Semis


Whenever a disruptive technology stands poised to enter a market or industry, it is instructive to look at a snapshot of the industry prior to the assimilation of the new technology—a “before” to compare to the “after” with the new technology. So here are a few key statistics about the trucking industry as it stands currently before semiautonomous semi trucks go into mass production: trucks carry 70% of all goods shipped in the United States, which equals approximately 10.7 billion tons this year, yielding $719 billion in revenue. There are approximately 1.7 million truck drivers in the U.S., and truck driving is the most common job in 29 states. The long hours combined with the low wages leads to high turnover, however, and this year the turnover rate is expected to reach nearly 90% by some estimates. By the end of this year, there is estimated to be a shortage of 50,000 drivers.


In November, Elon Musk’s Tesla, Inc. debuted its Tesla Semi, a semi-autonomous, all electric semi truck. The truck can reportedly haul 80,000 pounds of cargo a full 500 miles on a single charge. It features the Enhanced Autopilot System which includes automatic braking, lane keeping and lane departure warnings. This newest marvel of Tesla is slated for production in 2019.

Tesla is not the only company rushing headlong into developing autonomous big rigs. In 2016, Uber acquired the startup company Otto, which has developed technology to allow trucks to drive semi-autonomously. However, production of trucks with Otto’s technology has been stalled due to the rights to the technology being mired in litigation. Peloton is developing driver-assistance technology that will allow trucks to follow each other on a highway while keeping a safe distance (known as “platooning”). A truck can autonomously follow the lead truck, with proven fuel savings of 7%. Starsky Robotics has already used a self-driving truck to haul freight for 120 miles on a highway route out west. The company envisions ultimately using remote control to steer trucks from highway exits to their final destinations. Daimler, the parent company of Mercedes, has developed a program called Highway Pilot which has sensors and cameras to make regular trucks safer.


The goals of these enhanced trucking technologies and autonomous semis are simple: (1) better fuel efficiency due to less braking and accelerating; and (2) fewer truck-related deaths per year caused by human error. In 2015, 4,067 people were killed and 116,000 people were injured in crashes involving large trucks according to the NHTSA. Achieving these goals may not be far off, since autonomous shipping on highways is easier due to not having to navigate around pedestrians, cyclists, and traffic lights. A third goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, as the Tesla Semi would do because it is electric, is also important; heavy-duty trucks generate 23% of the U.S. transportation sector’s greenhouse gas emissions.


If you or a loved one has been injured in an accident involving a semi truck, contact Dave Thomas at The Thomas Law Firm for a free consultation regarding your legal rights.

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Thomas Law Firm
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