The first self-driving commercial truck in the U.S. is officially on the road in Nevada.
Freightliner, the creator of the autonomous truck, compares the Highway Pilot system to the autopilot on commercial airplanes.
Using stereoscopic cameras and radar sensors, the semi-truck can be switched to autonomous autopilot on the highway.
The truck can steer itself between lane markers, adjust speed, and brake.
It cannot change lanes to pass, or use highway ramps. The truck driver resumes full control by touching the wheel or brakes.Right now, the system is limited to use on highways during daylight hours with clear weather.
With only one truck on the road, it’s hard to predict the long-term effects of autonomous trucking systems.
They do have the potential to improve efficiency. Steady speed will reduce fuel consumption. The auto-option can leave the trucker free to make calls, update route plans, schedule dock time, and do other tasks that would normally distract the truck driver from the road.
More importantly, removing some of the potential for driver mistakes could reduce the number of truck crashes. Currently, about 90% of truck crashes are attributed to human error.
What do you think of autonomous semi-trucks on the road? Let me know – @kevincoluccio
It could have been much, much worse.
Last week, an oversized load on a flatbed semi-truck struck a bridge in Seattle.
The truck was on bottom ramp, heading south on the Alaskan Way Viaduct.
If you’re not familiar with the Viaduct, here’s what it looks like from the side. The oversized load was on the lower bridge.
The truck driver hit the bridge supports with his load of giant metal spools. The spools were about 12 feet in diameter, and 700-1000 pounds each, according to Seattle Police Department.
One of the spools was tilted against the side rail, above the street below.
If the spools had fallen, or the bridge cracked, the results could have been catastrophic.
A Trucker’s Mistakes
First of all, the truck driver and his employer Midwest Specialized Transportation failed to get a permit for driving on the Viaduct, which has a 14-foot height limit.
Had they applied for a permit, the trucker would have known the clearance restrictions, and could have gotten help from the city of Seattle to plan another route.
The truck driver—who should be thanking his lucky stars that no one was injured or killed—was cited $428 for failing to obtain a permit and striking the bridge.
Secondly, it looks like the driver should have had a pilot car escort him through the city.
When load height exceeds the legal limit, it becomes the responsibility of the permit holder to check all underpasses, bridges, overhead wires or any other structures for impaired vertical clearance, and to bypass or arrange clearance at such locations. If you have any questions, call Seattle Transportation Traffic Permits at (206) 684-5086.
14’1” through 14’11” high: 1 pilot car, front
15’ 0” through 15’ 5+” high: 2 pilot cars, front and rear
15’ 6” high or over: City of Seattle Commercial Vehicle Enforcement escort required
Finally, the truck driver should have been able to see for himself that the load was too tall.
There are clearance signs on the Viaduct. A driver behind the semi truck saw the crash:
Seattle Cleans Up
Seattle’s police and fire departments managed to clear the crash site in about two hours. This is remarkable, considering that a truck crash in March took 9 hours to clear, and gridlocked the city for hours.
An overnight inspection by Washington State Department of Transportation determined that the Viaduct was stable, and safe for driving.
This went as well as could be hoped, given the circumstances.
But truck crashes like this remind us that everyone on the road is relying on semi truck drivers and their companies to plan their routes, follow the law, and drive safely.
Image (altered): Seattle – Alaskan Way Viaduct 02″ by Joe Mabel. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Trucking companies must drug-test all applicants when hiring truck drivers. A driver must be tested again if he or she is involved in a truck accident that results in a serious injury or fatality. Those results are shared with The Department of Transportation (DOT), which regulates the trucking industry.
Currently, The Department of Transportation (DOT) accepts only one type of drug test: urinalysis.
Last week, The Drug Free Commercial Driver Act of 2015 was introduced in both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. The bill would allow the DOT to recognize hair sample drug testing.
Why we need new drug tests for truckers
Urinalysis not very effective in detecting drug use: it only detects drugs used in the previous 2 or 3 days, at most.
Hair testing detects drugs used in the past 60 to 90 days.
Some carriers already use hair testing; the alarming data provided by these companies is part of the basis for the new legislation.
J.B. Hunt Transport data from driver applicants’ drug tests for the past 8 years:
- 110 driver applicants failed a urinalysis
- 3,845 driver applicants failed a hair test
This carrier used hair tests, but many others don’t—in part, because the DOT doesn’t accept the results.
What this means is that the thousands of licensed truck drivers who failed that hair test could have easily passed a urine test, and be driving for another fleet.
Why the trucking industry supports new drug tests
It’s unusual to see industry groups lobby for more—not less—federal regulation.
“ATA is committed to improving highway safety, including doing all we can to prevent individuals who use drugs or alcohol from driving trucks…”
- ATA President and CEO Bill Graves.
In fact, many major carriers have pushed for new drug-testing rules for years. Here’s why:
- Some trucking companies already perform hair tests on their drivers. The new law would let them send those results to the DOT—and stop using the relatively useless urinalysis tests.
- Drugged truckers increase the risk of truck accidents. That makes those drivers an insurance liability to the entire fleet.
- Truckers spend a lot of time behind the wheel: they need highways to be as safe as possible. Thousands of truckers who could pass a urine test, but not necessarily a hair test, are currently on the road.
Follow the progress of the bill on GovTrack.Us
For more on trucking law and safety, follow @kevincoluccio on Twitter
The images are shocking.
The first collision was between a jackknifed truck and a passenger truck driven by Kaleb Whitby. His vehicle spun around and flipped upon hitting the semi-truck, and he could see another tractor-trailer coming directly at him.
Saturday’s semi-truck pile-up in Eastern Oregon involved between 50 and 70 cars, according to Oregon State Police.
Dangerous driving on black ice
“Black ice” is a thin coating of glazed ice on the roadway surface. It forms from freezing rain, or melting ice and snow, when the temperature is within a couple degrees of freezing. In colder conditions, black ice will form on the highways because of the heat caused by tires on the road.
Driving on black ice is notoriously dangerous.
Tractor-trailer drivers are trained to:
- Pay close attention to the road and weather;
- Brake and accelerate slowly in icy conditions;
- Watch for signs of black ice, such as ice build-up on mirror arms, antenna or the top corners of the windshield.
The stretch of I-84 where Saturday’s truck crash occurred is on a slight hill with a curve.
The Oregon State Police will have to investigate the causes of each collision.
Amazingly, no fatalities were reported, although several people were hospitalized with serious injuries.
Commercial truckers who admitted to falling asleep while driving are believed to cause more than 750 fatalities and 20,000 injuries every year.
In truth, that estimate is likely quite low.
It’s almost impossible to know how many truck accidents sleepy truckers cause. The same is true for car accidents – very few drivers admit to falling asleep at the wheel and causing a crash.
But what we do know is fatigued driving is a bigger problem for truckers compared to other drivers, due to the sheer amount of time they spend behind the wheel.
Safety Rules Change Keeping Sleepy Truckers on the Road
The new changes in the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s (FMCSA) hours-of-service rules probably won’t help. Truckers are no longer required to take 30-minute break every 8 hours, or 2 overnight breaks between work-weeks.
Some semi-truck drivers found the safety changes implemented last year prohibitive, and believe the FMCSA rule change is helping them.
None of these rules address what many believe to be the real problem for truck drivers: the pay-per-mile system. When truckers are paid per-mile, instead of per hour, they have a lot more incentive to keep driving instead of stopping to sleep.
The risk of a crash effectively doubles from the eighth to the tenth hour of driving, and doubles again from the tenth to the eleventh hour of driving alone.
- FMCSA, 2000
Fatigued truck drivers operating huge, heavy tractor-trailers put everyone on the road at risk.
Earlier this year, comedian Tracy Morgan and several others were seriously injured —one man was killed—when a tired trucker rear-ended their vehicle at a high speed. The truck driver had been awake for more than 24 hours at the time of the crash.
The trucking industry is getting a holiday bonus from the U.S. Congress.
The federal spending bill just passed for 2015 includes a provision that will undo many of the safety changes the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) implemented last year.
The current rules, mandating a 30-minute break every 8 hours, and 2 overnight breaks between work-weeks, are hurting drivers, the carrier representatives claim. They successfully argued for the new rule, which removes overnight restrictions from the 36-hour overnight breaks.
The pay-per-mile system means that truckers aren’t paid for the hours they spend loading, re-fueling, or taking mandatory breaks. If trucking carriers were truly concerned about truckers’ safety and quality of life, they would pay drivers by the hour.
Smart-Trucking.com, a website run by truck drivers, calculated driver’s costs and time, and found that many drivers are making less than $4.00/hour.
Big trucking companies say that their revenue growth was slowed in 2013 because of the slow implementation of the new FMCSA regulations.
In reality, they’re making more money than ever. The average net profit margin was about 6 percent for last year. That’s a big increase from 3-4 percent range the previous three years.
Trucking companies could be paying drivers more: they choose not to do so.
Carriers have more interest in their bottom line than in public safety.
They have likely calculated that it’s less expensive to manage turnover and pay per mile than it is for them to pay experienced drivers by the hour. It’s a risk calculation – similar to what insurance companies do – and based on those profit margins, it must be working for them.
If the current safety rules are hurting truckers, it’s because carriers are defraying their own costs on the backs of truckers.
And the government is allowing the trucking industry to make more money, pay drivers less, and make our roads more dangerous.
Most long-haul semi-truck drivers in the U.S. are not paid a salary.
They are paid per mile.
Some jobs pay bonuses, but most of a trucker’s “On Duty, Not Driving” time—loading, unloading, refueling, break time— is unpaid.
So, when truckers are waylaid by bad weather, stuck in traffic, or taking their mandatory breaks, they are basically unpaid.
Does pay-per-mile contribute to truck accidents?
Paying truckers per mile puts incentives on unsafe behaviors. If a driver paid per mile is put off-schedule by a sudden traffic jam, that driver may drive too long and skip breaks to make the miles.
A recent study from Australia, under review by the Federal Motor Carrier Administration, supports this theory. Researchers found that truck drivers who are paid by distance (in Australia, kilometers), or paid per trip, take fewer breaks—and take more drugs.
A tired trucker or trucker who has used drugs to stay awake trying to make up miles is a recipe for a serious truck accident.
The high rate of truck driver turnover
Experienced truckers are leaving the industry because they’re not making enough money for their time and effort. This is creating a safety issue: inexperienced drivers are more likely to be responsible for a fatal crash.
For long-haul carriers, it’s a revolving door: they had turnover rates of 99 percent in the first half of 2013.
Although it makes sense from a safety perspective, it’s unlikely that major trucking companies would be willing to consider the pay change.
Trucking carriers argue that customers are paying fleets by the mile. Therefore, fleet drivers should be paid by the mile, too.
“Disconnecting driver pay from how we get paid by our customers is a very frightening thought for this industry…”
The trucking industry would be committing “financial suicide,” with hourly pay, said Steve Gordon, COO of Gordon Trucking Inc.
It’s illegal. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has a blanket ban on commercial drivers using a hand-held cellular phone or texting while driving.
It’s unsafe. Truck drivers are 23x more likely to crash if they are texting.
And a number of trucking carriers claim that texting and driving is grounds for a driver’s immediate dismissal.
So why are these truckers still texting and driving?
It’s shocking to hear that truckers are so blatantly disregarding the law, their safety, and, most importantly, the safety of everyone else on the road.
Federal rules are strict, but it’s the state’s responsibility to enforce them.
Fewer than 16,000 tickets were issued to commercial drivers last year for using cell phones. There are about 3.5 million truck drivers in the U.S.
States need to step up enforcement on those commercial drivers who are putting everyone on the road in danger.
About half of the deaths from semi-truck accidents involve an underride collision.
When a passenger vehicle is pushed under a semi truck, the top of the car is crushed and the passengers are injured and often killed by striking the underneath parts of a semi-truck or trailer.
Cars are designed to absorb the energy from the sides, not from the top.
Safety features –like airbags and seatbelts– are almost useless when the impact comes from the top down.
Underride guards, which are basically steel bars on the back of tractor-trailers, are supposed to prevent underride collisions by keeping the vehicle from sliding under the trailer.
Truck safety laws are out-of-date
1. Not all trucks have underride guards.
The U.S. government doesn’t require tractor-trailers to have front or side underride guards (for perspective, Europe has required underride guards on large trucks since 1994). Furthermore, many heavy trucks are exempt from the rear guard rule.
2. The guards we use are massively flawed.
The standards for rear underride guards are extremely out-of-date. Canadian regulations require a guard that withstands about twice as much force as required by the U.S. rule.
IIHS tests found that even the strongest guard left almost half of the back of the truck open to underride.
Ignoring the problem
IIHS has been working with trucking companies to test redesigned tractor-trailer guards. In 2011, IIHS shared the results of their studies, and asked NHTSA to require rear underride guards that are strong enough to remain in place during a crash. See Crash tests demonstrate the need for new underride guard standards.
Nothing was done.
Just recently, NHTSA agreed to look at the safety standards for underride guards after a public shaming by a family who petitioned the agency after a horrifying underride collision killed 2 girls.
If something could be done to make underride guards stronger, then why wasn’t it being done?
– Marianne Karth, crash survivor and truck safety advocate
Hopefully, NHTSA will finally address this serious truck safety issue.
It’s a horrible—but common—story about a truck crash.
A tractor-trailer transporting goods for Walmart rear-ended a limo bus on a highway.
Law enforcement’s investigation shows that the truck driver had not slept for 24 hours prior to the crash, and that he failed to pay proper attention as he approached stopped traffic.
One passenger was killed and several others were seriously injured in the truck crash, including comedian Tracy Morgan. A lawsuit was filed for the victims’ damages.
This week, Walmart’s attorneys filed the defense response to the suit: blaming the victims, claiming that the severity of the injuries was due to passengers failures to wear safety belts.
Any attorney who’s worked on trucking and auto accident cases has seen this defense tactic. It’s a big mistake in this case.
The Walmart truck was going 65 mph …
If you have been lucky enough to avoid seeing a crash at this speed, you can’t imagine the damage that it does.
Here’s how this works in a trucking case:
1. Walmart has to prove that a safety belt would have prevented the injuries and death, which would put some fault on the victims.
2. To do that, Walmart has to hire an expert truck accident reconstructionist.
3. The accident reconstructionist would have to defy common sense and physics, and prove that a belt can save you when an 80,000 truck rear-ends you at 65 mph.
… Which is 20 mph over the speed limit
Walmart’s defense team must also show that the driver’s speed was not a factor.
Their defense states the injuries and death were totally or in part caused by the victims themselves: therefore, it doesn’t matter that the driver is speeding.
Aside from the truck’s speed, it was a rear-end collision on a highway: that usually only happens when a driver falls asleep.
We can see you, Walmart.
Walmart is fighting an uphill battle.
Instead of doing the right thing, accepting responsibility for the actions of its truck driver and settling this case, Walmart attorneys are going to drag the injured victims and the family of the deceased through a long, painful court battle.
And they’re doing it publicly.
Does Walmart think we can’t see them?
Or do they just not care?