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‘Mushy middle’ on liability might stall self-driving trucks

Some weeks ago we took a look at how a proposal for putting speed governors on semitrailer trucks is sparking mixed reactions. Safety proponents say the limiters would rein in truckers who push tires beyond their design limits into the danger zone. They say the move would make roads safer for everyone. Advocates for truck drivers say such controls will do little but increase road rage.

At this point, the issue remains unresolved. But since then a new development in the trucking world has surfaced that might raise even more concern for motorists in Texas and the rest of the country. Nevada has issued a license for truck-maker Freightliner and its parent Daimler to operate a partially autonomous 18-wheeler on The Silver State’s roads.

Officials stress that this is a partially autonomous vehicle. That means that it still has to have a driver sitting at the wheel as a hedge against liability in the event of an emergency. But the question many are asking is what’s the point?

Advocates of self-driving vehicles say that by letting computer-controlled sensors handle most of the mundane driving tasks, safety will improve. Drivers won’t be plagued by fatigue which is so commonly cited in fatal accidents involving commercial vehicles.

But other experts suggest that by turning over too much control to computers, we run the risk of creating conditions that result in drivers who become more distracted than normal because they don’t feel they need to pay attention. The caution they raise is that now is the time to be thinking about what controls should be in place to make sure drivers stay sharp so that they can intervene if conditions call for it.

Bryant Walker Smith, who teaches law and engineering in South Carolina, calls it the problem of the “mushy middle” — the gap between disengagement and the need to perform critical driving moves.

Some carmakers are testing out some devices to address the concern. Mercedes cars that have autonomous control require drivers to maintain a hand on the wheel. But some drivers have found ways to get around the restriction.

What this all indicates is that the road to full autonomous vehicles and realizing claims of safer travel is still under construction.