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Opinion: Transportation getting smarter, safer to meet demands

Eyes & Ears

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Technology has been on the brain. As it relates to transportation, specifically. You know, the talk about self-driving cars.

On the consumer side, it’s the news of two new fatal accidents reported by Tesla Inc. That’s 16 such crashes now involving its autopilot systems since mid-2021, when U.S. regulators required car companies report such data, according to a Bloomberg report.

The fallout involves lawsuits, one trial in particular to determine if “man or machine” is at fault. In a report by The Guardian, a Georgetown University law professor asks that pointed question, and a number of experts interviewed expect the case to test whether the technology has advanced faster than legal standards.

In this 2019 crash, in which two people died when their car was hit by a Tesla exiting a California highway and reportedly running a red light, the electric car maker is not charged. The individual in the Tesla driver’s seat, however, is on trial for criminal charges.

Tesla is being sued by the family of one of the deceased, and separately, Reuters has reported the U.S. Justice Department is investigating whether Tesla should face criminal charges over its self-driving claims. CEO Elon Musk has touted on Twitter the autonomous driving software is safer when engaged than standard driving, citing accident data. Here are the nuts and bolts from Musk’s tweet from the first quarter of 2021: one accident for every 4 million miles driven with Tesla’s autopilot turned on; one accident for every 2 million miles driven with Tesla’s safety features on but no autopilot; and one accident for every 978,000 miles driven with neither feature engaged. He ends the post citing National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data of one crash per every 484,000 miles driven.

All this to say the judicial system will play an integral role in establishing the responsibility between the technology and the crimes.

For business and logistics, there’s been some progress. Alongside the news of these fatal crashes and lawsuits, I read in Arkansas Business how trials by Walmart Inc. and J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. are scoring successes in northwest Arkansas.

Both giants in the supply chain are testing autonomous trucks to deliver consumer goods. Picture this: Walmart box trucks maneuvering the streets of Bentonville, Arkansas, to make deliveries to Neighborhood Market stores without a human driver behind the wheel. It’s happening, and the company has reported 200,000 miles of accident-free deliveries during the trials, according to Arkansas Business.

It’s interesting to note that Walmart’s tests started with a “safety driver” sitting behind the wheel of the truck, then moving to the passenger’s seat as successes were marked during this first phase. Also noteworthy, Arkansas Business reports the truck only makes right-hand turns for safety reasons on the 2 miles between the fulfillment center and the grocery store, resulting in a 7-mile route.

The J.B. Hunt study covers hundreds of miles on an interstate in Texas. Between Dallas and Houston, driverless semitrucks have delivered 862,000 pounds of freight on time and without an accident since trials began in mid-2021.

These trials also are expanding

I guess I do have a personal reason connected to this logistics technology. Family members recently were rear-ended on a Chicago interstate by a semitruck driver who acknowledged he had dozed off as traffic congestion quickly brought vehicle speeds from 65 mph to 30 mph. There were no fatalities – thankfully, in any of the multiple cars involved – only minor injuries and a totaled sedan.

Accidents do happen. By man and machine.

I support the continued testing of self-driving technologies and particularly appreciate the care given in Walmart’s case to incrementally remove the human involvement as progress is reported. As the logistics business only continues to increase, I do see how we’ll get smarter and safer down the road.

Springfield Business Journal Editorial Vice President Eric Olson can be reached at eolson@sbj.net.

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