Fleet Safety

Driverless Cars: Your Workplace Away From the Workplace?

With the sale of semi-autonomous vehicles only a few years away, employers need to consider how their use will affect company policies and procedures.
By: | May 23, 2014

The day is coming when motor vehicles will be able to get from point A to point B with no human input except the destination. While full automation of vehicles is still several years away, semi-autonomous vehicles are expected to hit the market within five years.

While these vehicles may dramatically reduce driving risks and increase productivity, there are also potential challenges. Government researchers are looking for input as to all the implications of this new technology.

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“Level 3 automation is limited self-driving automation,” according to researchers at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. “Vehicles at this level of automation enable the driver to cede full control of all safety-critical functions under certain traffic or environmental conditions. In these situations, the driver relies heavily on the vehicle to monitor for changes that require a transition back to driver control.”

The potential benefits to employers include crash reductions since the potential for human error is greatly reduced; improved efficiency since these vehicles can help reduce congestion and increase highway capacity, allowing for the quicker delivery of goods and services; and reduced fuel consumption because these vehicles can accelerate and decelerate more efficiently than a human driver.

But employers would be wise to consider potential changes to their transportation policies and operations. For example, driver training and licensing should be evaluated.

“Drivers of semi-autonomous vehicles will need to learn about the capabilities and limitations of these vehicles,” the researchers explained on a NIOSH science blog posting. “It remains to be seen whether states will require special tests or certifications to operate these vehicles, similar to a motorcycle endorsement on a driver’s license, or whether it will be left to consumers to educate themselves. In any event, employers who furnish highly automated vehicles to workers for business or personal use may consider whether they should provide additional training.”

Distracted driving, a leading cause of motor vehicle crashes could become less of an issue, as the worker will not need to be involved with operating the vehicle during certain times. “Drivers of semi-autonomous vehicles will be able to cede control of the vehicle for extended periods of time,” the research stated. “This raises the possibility that the vehicle can be transformed into a legitimate workplace during those times, with the worker engaged in business meetings or interacting with various types of technology. Employers will need to consider these new possibilities in light of their current policies related to distracted driving.”

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Finally, there are questions about liability if, for example, a semi-autonomous vehicle is under the full control of automated functions during a crash. Who is responsible?

“We at the NIOSH Center for Motor Vehicle Safety want to develop research projects and resources that address the risks and opportunities posed by the introduction of these new technologies in the workplace,” the blog posting said. “We’d like to start a conversation about the implications of semi-autonomous vehicles for work-related road safety and motor vehicle fleet operations.”

Nancy Grover is the president of NMG Consulting and the Editor of Workers' Compensation Report, a publication of our parent company, LRP Publications. She can be reached at [email protected]

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The R&I Editorial Team can be reached at [email protected]