The future is near for self-driving trucks on US roads

PITTSBURGH (AP) — On a three-lane test track along the Monongahela River, an 18-wheel tractor-trailer went around a curve. Nobody was on board.

A quarter mile later, the truck’s sensors spotted a trash can blocking one lane and a tire in another. In less than a second, he signaled, moved into the open lane, and rumbled through the obstacles.

The semi-autonomous, equipped with 25 laser, radar and camera sensors, belongs to Aurora Innovation, based in Pittsburgh. Late this year, Aurora plans to begin hauling freight on Interstate 45 between the Dallas and Houston areas with 20 driverless trucks.

Within three to four years, Aurora and its competitors plan to put thousands of such autonomous trucks on U.S. public highways. The goal is that the trucks, which can run almost 24 hours a day without any interruption, will speed up the flow of goods, thereby speeding up delivery times and perhaps reducing costs. They will also travel short distances on secondary roads.

The companies say self-driving trucks will also save fuel because they won’t need to stop and will drive at more consistent speeds. Additionally, Aurora says its testing has shown that if a maintenance issue arises while one of its trucks is traveling on a highway, the vehicle will automatically pull to the side of the road and call for help remotely.

The image of a fully loaded 80,000-pound driverless truck weaving around cars on a highway at speeds of 65 mph or more can strike a note of terror. A January poll by AAA found that a decisive majority of U.S. drivers – 66% – said they would fear riding in an autonomous vehicle.

But in less than nine months, a seven-year scientific experiment led by Aurora will end and driverless trucks will begin transporting loads between terminals for FedEx, Uber Freight, Werner and other partners. Aurora and most of its competitors plan to begin operating freight routes in Texas, where snow and ice are generally rare.

For years, it seemed that the first project for autonomous vehicles would be to drive around big cities. But that of General Motors Cruise robo-taxi unit is in difficulty following a serious accident. And Alphabet’s Waymo is facing opposition to expanding its autonomous ride service in California. The result is that self-driving trucks are poised to become the first computer-controlled vehicles deployed in large numbers on public roads.

The vehicles have drawn skepticism from safety advocates, who warn that in the absence of federal regulations, it will mostly be up to the companies themselves to determine when tractor-trailers are safe enough to operate without humans on board. Critics complain that federal agencies, including the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, take a generally passive approach to safety, usually acting only after crashes. And most states have few regulations.

But Aurora and other companies developing these systems say years of testing show their trucks will actually be safer than those driven by humans. They note that laser and radar sensors in vehicles can “see” further than human eyes. Trucks never get tired, like human drivers do. They never allow themselves to be distracted or impaired by alcohol or drugs.

“We want to be out there with thousands or tens of thousands of trucks on the road,” said Chris Urmson, CEO of Aurora and former head of Google’s autonomous vehicle operations. “And to do that, we have to be safe. This is the only way the public will accept it. Frankly, this is the only way our customers will accept it.

Phil Koopman, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University who studies vehicle automation safety, said he agrees that self-driving trucks can theoretically be safer than those driven by humans — for the very reason they lack drivers who may be distracted or impaired. But he warned that vehicle computers would inevitably make mistakes. And how trucks perform in real-world situations, he said, will depend on how well they do their safety engineering.

With billions of dollars of investment at stake, Koopman said he wonders how companies will balance security decisions with cost concerns.

“Everything I see indicates they are trying to do the right thing,” he said. “But the devil is in the details.”

On the test track, reporters saw Aurora’s tractor-trailers avoid simulated road obstacles, including pedestrians, a flat tire and even a horse. But the trucks were traveling at just 35 mph (56 kilometers per hour) in a controlled environment, with nothing unexpected happening. (Trucks are tested with human safety drivers on Texas highways at speeds of 65 mph (105 km/h) or higher.)

On the track, trucks spotted obstacles more than a quarter mile away and immediately acted to avoid them. Urmson said laser sensors on trucks can detect people walking on a highway at night, well beyond the distance of headlights.

Since 2021, Aurora trucks have autonomously transported goods more than a million miles on public roads, but with human safety drivers in the cabins. There have only been three accidents, Urmson said, all caused by errors made by human drivers in other vehicles.

The accidents turned out to be minor, with no injuries. And in each case, the company said, the Aurora truck was able to park safely on the side of the road.

A federal database launched in June 2021 reports at least 13 crashes with other vehicles involving autonomous tractor-trailers, including three involving Auroras. In all cases, the accidents were caused by other vehicles changing lanes or hitting the trucks from behind. Sometimes human safety drivers took over just before the accident.

Aurora will not compromise security, Urmson said, although it could delay the timetable for realizing benefits.

“If we put a vehicle on the road that isn’t safe enough – and that we don’t have confidence in the safety of – then it kills everything else,” he said.

Last month, when Urmson presented the trucks to Wall Street analysts in Pittsburgh, he said the public company hoped to turn a profit by the end of 2027 or early 2028. To achieve that goal, Aurora must succeed in putting thousands of trucks on the roads. , moving freight from terminal to terminal and collecting per-mile fees from customers.

The company’s competitors —, Gatik, Kodiak Robotics and others — also plan to soon put driverless trucks on the roads to haul goods for customers. Gatik expects this to happen this year or next year; the others have not set times.

Don Burnette, CEO of Kodiak, said highways are a better environment for autonomous vehicles than congested cities with robo-taxis. There are fewer pedestrians and fewer unexpected events occur. However, there are higher speeds and longer braking distances.

In highway testing with human backup drivers, Burnette said, Kodiak has never had an accident in which its trucks were at fault.

“Ultimately,” Burnette said, “these trucks should be much safer than human drivers.”

Almost every year in the United States, a tractor-trailer plows into stopped traffic due to road construction, often causing deaths and injuries. In contrast, Burnette said, self-driving trucks are constantly alert and always monitoring 360 degrees.

Maybe. But at a mega Buc-ee’s convenience store and gas station along Interstate 45, about 35 miles south of Dallas, the prospect of driverless tractor-trailers sparked some fear.

“It looks like a disaster waiting to happen,” said Kent Franz, a high school basketball coach from Chandler, Oklahoma, who was traveling to Houston for a wedding. “I’ve heard about driverless cars – Tesla, what have you – and the accidents they’ve had. Eighteen-wheelers? Something this heavy, that relies on technology that has been proven to be flawed? This doesn’t seem very comfortable to me.

Patti Pierce, a retired accountant from Plano, Texas, said she would be on board with the technology — in about a decade.

“I don’t want to be on the road with them right now,” she said. “I like gadgets in my car, but I’m not sure the technology is good enough right now to have a truck that drives itself.”

No federal regulations specifically cover autonomous vehicles, Carnegie Mellon’s Koopman noted. Most states also have no such regulations. Koopman said the automated vehicle industry has persuaded many states to prohibit local governments from adopting such regulations. The bottom line, he says, is that the public must trust companies that deploy autonomous tractor-trailers.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, both part of the federal Department of Transportation, do not have the authority to prevent autonomous vehicles from operating on the roads. However, if something goes wrong, they can require recalls or take the trucks out of service.

“You can’t expect the government to protect you here,” Koopman said. “The company is going to decide when it thinks it is safe, and the only thing the regulator is going to do is judge it after the fact.”

Over the past five years, the Motor Carrier Administration has prepared safety standards for trucks equipped with automated driving systems. The standards will govern inspections, maintenance and remote monitoring of trucks. But it is unclear when the rules will emerge from the regulatory process.

In the meantime, semi-auto companies say they can help address the truck driver shortage, estimated by the industry at 64,000 drivers. But there are also fears that self-driving trucks could eventually supplant human drivers and cost them their livelihoods.

The Teamsters union, which represents about 600,000 drivers, most of them truckers, is pushing state legislatures to require human drivers to monitor self-driving systems, saying they are unsafe. A 2021 Department of Transportation study concluded that nationwide use of fully automated tractor-trailers is a few years away, giving drivers time to transition to other transportation jobs and the logistics that will be created.

Aurora’s Urmson said he thinks driverless tractor-trailers will complement the work already done by human drivers, as much more cargo will need to be transported for a growing population.

“If you drive a truck today,” he said, “I expect you can retire driving a truck.”


AP Business Editor David Koenig contributed to this report from Dallas and AP Data reporter Aaron Kessler from Washington.

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Sara Adm

Aimant les mots, Sara Smith a commencé à écrire dès son plus jeune âge. En tant qu'éditeur en chef de son journal scolaire, il met en valeur ses compétences en racontant des récits impactants. Smith a ensuite étudié le journalisme à l'université Columbia, où il est diplômé en tête de sa classe. Après avoir étudié au New York Times, Sara décroche un poste de journaliste de nouvelles. Depuis dix ans, il a couvert des événements majeurs tels que les élections présidentielles et les catastrophes naturelles. Il a été acclamé pour sa capacité à créer des récits captivants qui capturent l'expérience humaine.
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