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Self-driving commercial vehicles are coming. Will they be safe?

Commercial trucks and buses have been chronic dangers on our nation's roads. Commercial carriers and motor coach companies have often been found to cut corners on safety, sometimes leading to tragic results. They may delay required maintenance, cut back on training, employ dangerous drivers and even encourage certain rules violations -- all in the name of improving the bottom line.

Considering all the accidents commercial vehicles have caused, it's tempting to think that self-driving vehicles could be a solution. Autonomous vehicles would take advantage of advanced sensors and safety technology to drive more safely. They would never get drunk or distracted or bored or sleepy. They would never break the law, as long as it was properly programmed. If autonomous vehicles would cut down on serious and deadly traffic accidents, it could be a dream come true.

In a recent state-of-the-technology piece, The New York Times noted that driverless commercial vehicles are well on their way to becoming a reality. Venture capitalists, technologies and even truck companies are working fast and investing a substantial amount of money into the project.

"We are trying to get self-driving technology out on the road as fast as possible," said the head of a Silicon Valley start-up called Embark. The Times says that investors are on track to put more than $1 billion into the technologies, which is 10 times the level invested just three years ago.

Just how safe will they be, though -- especially at the start?

The first self-driving commercial vehicle to be released to the public was a passenger van that was used as a shuttle. Part of a pilot program, the van was deployed to offer free rides to people in Las Vegas just a couple of weeks ago.

It got into an accident on its very first day.

A human-driven tractor-trailer was trying to back into an alley and didn't behave as the driverless shuttle expected. The damage was minimal and no one was injured, according to Bloomberg. Police ticketed the human driver.

It seems that the driverless van didn't know how to interpret the truck's maneuver in the way a human probably would have. "[The trucker] probably had an expectation that the shuttle would back off and allow him to do his thing," said a robotics professor. "There wasn't the logic inside this little shuttle to anticipate this."

There are still numerous technological and regulatory hurdles that must be overcome before autonomous commercial vehicles become a part of traffic. If there are accidents caused by the vehicles, and it seems there will be, we need to ensure that human beings are treated fairly and compensated fully for their injuries.

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