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Driverless Trucks in Texas 2024: Safety and Liability
June 18, 2024

Driverless Trucks in Texas 2024: Safety and Liability

By Jim Adler
June 18, 2024 • 5 min read

It’s a familiar experience on Texas interstate highways: there’s a tractor trailer ahead of you in the center lane. As you pull into the left lane to pass it, you glance over to get a look at the driver.

But there is no driver. The only movement is from the steering wheel turning itself a notch in an empty cab.

If you think this is the opening scene of a futuristic sci-fi movie, think again. Driverless semi-trucks are set to hit Texas roads by the end of 2024.

Proponents tout the safety of self-driving tractor trailers, saying they can reduce deadly trucking accidents. The technology is unproven, however, and raises liability questions that are particularly relevant in the autonomous trucking hub of North Texas.

Ready or Not, Driverless Trucks are Coming to Texas

Bad drivers are one thing. No drivers at all are something else entirely.

Only 9 percent of American drivers say they trust self-driving vehicles. Two-thirds say they fear them and one-quarter are unsure about them, respondents told AAA in its annual poll on automated driving.

Nevertheless, in Texas, drivers could be sharing the road with driverless semitrucks in just a few months’ time.

That’s the plan for Kodiak Robotics, Aurora Innovation, and Gatik—companies that plan to go “freight only” on Texas highways by year’s end. They’re among the many autonomous trucking firms using the state as a launching ground for their vehicles.

These companies consider Texas as an ideal place to roll out driverless commercial fleets due to the state’s limited regulation and high volume of truck freight.

Texas specifically allows self-driving trucks to operate without human drivers due to a 2017 law that bans cities from regulating autonomous vehicles. And each year, trucking moves 1.5 billion tons of freight to, from, and within Texas, according to TxDOT, which is partnering with road technology company Cavnue to build the nation’s first automated trucking corridor on a 21-mile stretch of SH 130 outside Austin.

DFW the “Silicon Valley” of Autonomous Trucking

North of Austin, the Dallas-Fort Worth area has become the spot for autonomous trucking in the U.S., say industry insiders like Ian Kinne, who directs logistics innovation at AllianceTexas, where a Mobility Innovation Zone allows for testing, scaling, and commercializing new technologies like self-driving trucks.

AllianceTexas is home to Gatik, an autonomous carrier company that specializes in middle-mile deliveries. Self-driving truck companies TuSimple and Einride also call Alliance home. The AllianceTexas website says that it aims for 30% autonomous truck adoption by 2030.

Volvo Autonomous Solutions recently opened an office in Fort Worth’s Near Southside neighborhood. The company says it’s “getting close” to removing drivers from its trucks.

Other companies claim their driverless trucks are road ready.

Kodiak runs most of its self-driving operations from Dallas and currently hauls loads daily for IKEA, C.R. England, and Tyson Foods on Texas roads with a human “safety driver” monitoring the truck. That is set to change by the end of the year as Kodiak starts to send out fully autonomous trucks.

Gatik delivers to Sams’s Club and Kroger stores in and around the Metroplex. It’s also planning to remove drivers from its trucks in 2024. So is Aurora, a company with routes in Fort Worth, Houston, and El Paso. Aurora plans to roll out 20 driverless trucks between Dallas and Houston late this year.

Are Autonomous Trucks Safe?

The most pressing need for self-driving trucks is the driver shortage plaguing the trucking industry.

Trucks carry more than 72% of the country’s freight and truck tonnage is expected to grow by nearly 3 billion tons over the next decade. But the industry is facing a serious—and growing—labor shortage, with an estimated 80,000 driver gap that could double by 2030 and threatens a supply chain increasingly centered around all-day goods delivery.

In addition to boosting the economy, advocates say autonomous trucks can improve road safety.

Commercial trucks were involved in nearly 39,000 crashes in Texas in 2023, reports TxDOT. These crashes involved 620 fatalities and thousands of serious injuries.

The companies developing autonomous truck systems say their vehicles, equipped with laser and radar sensors that are superior to the human eye, will be safer than manually driven trucks.

“They drive defensively. They drive cautiously,” Kodiak Director of External Affairs Daniel Goff said about the company’s trucks, which have 18 scanners that monitor all parts of the vehicle 10 times per second.

“The Kodiak system doesn’t get tired, it doesn’t get distracted, it doesn’t check its phone, it doesn’t have a bad day and take it out on the road,” Goff added.

But running driving simulations in controlled environments is very different than real-world driving, where the unexpected can happen at any second, says Phil Koopman, a Carnegie Mellon Professor who studies vehicle automation safety.

What happens when an automated truck comes across an animal crossing the road, a stopped emergency vehicle, cyclist, grass fire, work zone, or something else unusual?

There’s a bigger issue, too. No matter how much companies say the right things about safety, given the lax regulatory environment for autonomous vehicles—there are no state or federal regulations explicitly covering them—manufacturers are the ones that decide whether the vehicles are safe enough to drive on public roads.

“You can’t expect the government to protect you here,” Koopman said. “One hopes the companies are responsible. Some have proven they are. Some have proven they are not. Under that kind of financial pressure, even the best leadership might find themselves with pressure to deploy even if they’re not ready.”

Who is Liable for a Self-Driving Truck Accident?

Inevitably, says Koopman, autonomous semis’ computers will make mistakes in the real world. When they do, it will further complicate the already-complicated question of car accident liability.

According to Deloitte, assessing fault for self-driven truck accidents will be a matter of product liability. For example, these accidents could be caused by failed sensors, GPS flaws, software errors, manufacturing defects, network problems, and cyberattacks. They could also be caused by professional negligence (e.g., coding or algorithm mistakes).

Product liability insurance and professional liability insurance could be used to cover such claims when the truck is deemed to be at fault, Deloitte notes, while traditional liability policies would cover incidents like a self-driving truck that hits an icy patch of road and crashes.

Drivers of traditional motor vehicles could still cause trucking accidents as well and would have liability insurance to cover these incidents.

Self-driving truck accident liability is an issue that will play out in the courts and the insurance markets. But Texans may not have to wait long for answers. We might start learning them the hard way later this year when autonomous trucks hit our highways.

In the Brave New World of autonomous vehicle litigation, count on Jim Adler & Associations to help you navigate the road ahead.

About Jim Adler

Jim Adler, also known as The Texas Hammer®, is an American trial attorney and owner of Jim Adler & Associates. He has been practicing law in Texas in the area of personal injury for 54 years.

Jim Adler graduated from the University of Texas School of Law where he received his Juris Doctor degree (J.D.) in 1967.

Jim Adler is a member of the State Bar of Texas, American Bar Association (ABA) and American Trial Lawyers Association. He is licensed to practice in the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit and U.S. District Courts of Texas. Read More

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