Self-Driving Trucks and Motor Carrier Liability

Written by: Sandro Stojanovic, Esq.

Self-driving trucks are expected to “hit the road” in the near future. In October of 2016, Anheuser-Busch and Uber Technologies teamed up to deliver 50,000 cans of beers in a self-driving truck traveling a total of 120 miles from Fort Collins, via I-25, to Colorado Springs. While this delivery was a groundbreaking development in the autonomous driving technology, a question of liability must be examined. The data published by FMCSA reveals that in 2015, 4,440 large trucks and buses were involved in fatal crashes and there were approximately 119,000 injury crashes. In most, human error plays a major role in determining liability, so self-driving trucks pose a question of who takes responsibility for the collision – truck owner, truck manufacturer, or even the truck itself?

In October of 2015, Volvo’s CEO Hakan Samuelsson stated that the company will accept full liability whenever one of its cars is involved in a crash while in autonomous mode. In February of 2016, Google accepted blame for the crash caused by one of its self-driving vehicles. Mercedes-Benz has also confirmed that when their autonomous technology is commercially available, they will accept full responsibility and liability.

While assessing liability on behalf of the manufacturers may be a simple solution, motor carriers will not be easily exonerated in Georgia. For example, while respondeat superior may no longer apply, motor carriers could still be liable under the theory of joint venture. A “joint venture” arises where two or more parties combine their property or labor, or both, in a joint undertaking for profit, with rights of mutual control, so as to render all joint venturers liable for the negligence of the other. For a joint venture to exist, there must be not only a joint interest in the purpose of the enterprise but also an equal right, express or implied, to direct and control the conduct of one another in the activity causing the injury. Yancey v. Watkins, 308 Ga. App. 695, 698 (2011). Both, the manufacturer and the motor carrier, would be engaging in a joint undertaking for profit with combined property and labor. Also, the manufacturer would probably have some control over the tractor since they are accepting full liability and would be responsible for maintenance of the autonomous system. These elements alone establish the theory of joint venture where the motor carrier could be sued long with the manufacturer.

Under the joint venture theory of liability, motor carrier could be protected by seeking indemnification from the manufacturer, however, they would still be named as a defendant and required to defend the lawsuit. Regardless, the shift to the driverless tractor-trailer may be long coming. In the recent study published by the American Center for Mobility (ACM), the researchers believe that automated vehicles will create a shift in workforce demands by actually supporting truck drivers instead of replacing them.[1] “The results of the report indicate that substantial and multifaceted education and training efforts will be needed to transform the workforce and public for automated vehicles,” said Soraya Kim, Chief Innovation Officer for ACM. ACM has estimated that significant numbers of automated vehicles will not be deployed until latter half of the 2020s.

Motor carriers should stay focused on novel risks as the industry changes from current driver-operated vehicles to autonomous vehicles operated by artificial intelligence. While the predictions demonstrate that self-driving trucks will lower the amount of crashes substantially, it appears that theories of liability will still be applicable to the motor carriers in the future, regardless of the human involvement. Motor carriers should assess their future agreements with manufacturers in order to be properly indemnified and protected from further liability