Self-Driving Trucks on Washington Roads: Are They Safe?

self-driving trucks

In December 2019, a self-driving semi-truck developed by tech company successfully drove from California to Pennsylvania to deliver a load of butter. This marked a potential turning point in the effort to put more driverless vehicles on the roadways.

The coming demand for partially autonomous trucks means there will be a wave of demand for operators who monitor self-driving trucks when they’re on the road. Before we get to that point, however, it’s worth asking whether the technology and the trucking industry are ready — or if self-driving trucks will add a new dimension to the epidemic of deadly truck wrecks.’s Pilot Run Marks a Success for Self-Driving Truck Technology specializes in self-driving fleet technology. The company developed the self-driving truck that drove 2,800 miles in less than three days to bring 20 tons of butter from California to Pennsylvania for Land O’Lakes.

The truck drove the entire way almost entirely by itself and with only scheduled stops. The company had two people aboard (a driver and an engineer) so they could step in if needed, but they never had to. Conditions on the route included night driving, winding mountain roads, construction, long tunnels, and both rain and snow.

While the success of this run will encourage trucking carriers and technology companies who want more driverless vehicles on the road,’s own chief operating officer said it would take several years before self-driving trucks become a regular feature on U.S. roads.

Safety Concerns About Self-Driving Trucks

It’s impressive that the truck made its trip without any problems. However, one success does not negate the legitimate safety concerns around self-driving truck technology.

Automated driving systems are classified in different levels based on how much of the work the technology handles. For example, TuSimple (a self-driving truck company) is working on Level 4 self-driving technology, which is even more automated than the Level 3 technology in the truck.

Level 3 systems monitor the environment and make decisions based on sensors, but they still require a human operator in the cab who is ready to step in. Level 4 self-driving systems are designed to automatically accelerate, steer, brake, and monitor the surrounding environment without any human intervention.

While level 4 systems might sound more experimental and dangerous, highway safety experts actually worry more about level 3 systems since they’ll make their way onto our roads much sooner. If a level 3 system encounters a situation it can’t handle, the human driver needs to take over immediately, and the transition needs to be seamless in order to be safe. Truck drivers need to be trained on these systems, and they need to be rested, ready, and alert when it’s suddenly time to take over.

But we already know from recent history (and from firsthand experience at Seattle Truck Law) that too many trucking companies fail when it comes to responsible hiring, proper training, and keeping their drivers rested and healthy.

There’s no reason to think negligent companies will suddenly change their ways and start putting safety ahead of short-term profits just because we roll out self-driving technology. If anything, self-driving systems may make these issues worse by convincing these companies that hiring, training, and taking care of experienced drivers isn’t important because the technology will handle most of the work.

Is the Trucking Industry Ready to Address Safety Concerns Over Self-Driving Trucks?

Some companies are developing additional systems to help transition between self-driving and human-operated modes. These systems can monitor human drivers for alertness, attention, and distraction. Companies are also creating education and certification programs for human drivers who will operate self-driving vehicles.

However, none of this changes the fact that we have far too many trucking companies with a history of cutting corners for the sake of profits. From under-trained and unqualified drivers to poor truck maintenance to hours of service violations, these companies have proven they can’t be trusted to look out for the safety of their drivers or the public. If they can’t safely run the fleets they already have, how can we trust them to roll out new and unproven self-driving technology?

RELATED: Do Truck Companies Pressure Employees to Break the Law?

Seattle Truck Law: Fighting for Truck Wreck Victims in Washington State

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Beresford, C. (2019, December 12). Self-driving semi truck hauls load of butter 2,800 miles in 3 days. Car and Driver. Retrieved from

Nichols, G. (2019, December 30). Butter run: First autonomous truck completes cross-country freight trip. ZDNet. Retrieved from

Tighem, G.V. (2019, December 6). Driver training, monitoring could help ensure safe testing, deployment of automated trucks. Transport Topics. Retrieved from

The content provided here is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice on any subject.