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Self-Driving Trucking: Coming to an Interstate Near You

Autonomous trucking has grabbed the attention of truckers, regulators, and safety advocates for several years, and quietly, advances in this industry are being made. Whether realized or not, small fleets of autonomous trucks are transporting goods down U.S. highways and interstates, and a small number of companies are leading the way as we enter this bold new phase of transportation. Without established oversight at a federal level, states are all in on what could be a major paradigm shift… and according to some transportation experts, this could be a game-changer.

self-driving truck technology in action
Advances in self-driving truck technology means robot truckers are coming to an interstate near you.

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In states like Texas, Florida, Arizona and others, self-driving truck technology is already in play. These states, and others, have existing laws in place that help guide testing and progress of autonomous trucking. In others, no such laws exist, which does not preclude their use or their testing according to federal transportation regulations. It is precisely this loose framework that has helped propel autonomous trucking ahead. This is why companies like FedEx and Uber Freight are already employing these vehicles to carry limited truckloads. Given the progress made thus far, some of these companies expect to have larger fleets of self-driving trucks by year’s end. And by the end of the decade, thousands could be operating nationwide.

Bold Businesses Leading the Way

In terms of self-driving truck technology, Texas is one state that appears to be embracing innovation. Several companies involved in autonomous trucking have been operating there over the last few years. Currently, testing of this self-driving truck technology is operating at a driver oversight level. In other words, drivers sit in the cab of these vehicles and monitor operations and decisions made by the autonomous machine. But soon, these drivers will no longer be present, and autonomous trucking will be fully realized. Interstate segments between Dallas and Houston, for example, will serve as the initial launch of such operations. And at present, at least three autonomous trucking companies will be involved as self-driving truck technology evolves.

Aurora Innovations is one of these companies involved in autonomous trucking. The company was founded in 2017 by former executives at Uber, Google, and Tesla. These founders all had expertise in self-driving technologies, and they have applied their knowledge and experience accordingly. At present, Aurora is already operating more than 100 deliveries per week for various freight carriers in Texas. This is the result of extensive training of self-driving truck technology that began in 2020. By the end of this year, Aurora expects to have at least 20 self-driving trucks running between Dallas and Houston. If this is successful, the company plans to then increase its operations nationwide.

a bunch of autonomous trucks on a bridge
Highways full of robotic trucks? Welcome to the future!

Of course, Aurora isn’t the only autonomous trucking company operating in Texas and elsewhere. Kodiak Robotics is on the same pace as Aurora when it comes to self-driving truck technology. Kodiak was also founded by former executives involved in autonomous transportation at Uber and Alphabet. And it too expects a small fleet of self-driving trucks in the state by year’s end. Daimler Trucks, a collaborative partnership between Daimler and Torc Robotics, is a few years behind Aurora and Kodiak. However, it too has been testing autonomous trucking in Texas with plans for a fleet by 2027. While each of these companies are still relying on human monitoring in truck cabs, this will soon change. Completely autonomous trucks are expected within months in the state. If this proceeds safely and without incident, then it would appear these specific businesses will be ready for a 2024 launch.

Autonomous Trucking Not Without Concerns

autonomous trucking in an 18-wheeler
Autonomous trucking is nearly here–are you ready

While the progress is self-driving truck technology is exciting, safety concerns do exist. At the federal level, rules are still trying to be established that would provide structure and monitoring of safety. For over five years, the National Highway Transportation Safety Agency has pursued regulations in this regard. But to date, these still have not yet been finalized. In Texas, all three autonomous trucking companies have been involved in some minor accidents. Daimler and Aurora specifically have failed to avoid striking a deer in one case or being hit by a hydroplaning car in another. None have involved serious injury or fatality. And according to autonomous trucking advocates, this is better than the current status. Statistically, nearly 6,000 deaths occur from trucking accidents each year, representing 13% of all traffic fatalities.

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Other concerns have to do with job displacement, which is a top worry of trucking unions and workers. With self-driving truck technology, the physical limitations and costs of human labor could be reduced. In this regard, autonomous trucking could dramatically change transportation industries as a whole. But in terms of job displacement, the impact may not be as great as anticipated. Research suggests that self-driving truck technology would only replace about 11,000 trucking jobs. That’s only about 2% of the industry’s workforce. Plus, autonomous trucking could create new jobs related to maintenance, dispatching, and fueling. As a result, the fears related to job displacement may not be well substantiated.

Moving from State to Interstate

At the current time, there are 24 states that have passed legislation allowing testing and development of autonomous trucking. There are another 16 states that have no such legislation in place either for or against self-driving truck technology. According to federal law, autonomous trucking companies can legally test their operations in all of these states. It’s only the other 10 states that have passed specific restrictions limiting self-driving trucks that hinder such progress. It is precisely this landscape that has facilitated innovation and advancement in this sector. And it is why thousands of autonomous trucks could soon be traversing the country conducting tens of thousands of routes annually. Before the decade’s over, don’t be surprised if self-driving truck technology isn’t the norm when it comes to long-haul road transport.


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