Driverless Trucks Set to Hit US Highways

06:00 May 4, 2024

Driverless Trucks Set to Hit US Highways

An American company is preparing to launch a series of driverless trucks to transport goods on a major public highway.

Aurora Innovation says it plans to begin the service later this year in Texas with 20 tractor-trailers. The trucks will drive back and forth to transport goods between the cities of Dallas and Houston.

The Pittsburgh-based company says it hopes to expand the service to thousands of tractor-trailers within three to four years. Aurora says the transportation method could operate 24 hours a day. It aims to speed up the process and possibly save on transportation costs.

Aurora will continue testing for the next nine months. If all goes well, the driverless program will begin after that. At first, the trucks will be carrying loads for FedEx and other transportation partners between the companies’ processing centers.

Since 2021, Aurora trucks have autonomously carried goods over 1 million kilometers on public roads. But those vehicles all had human safety drivers sitting inside.

The company said there have been three crashes involving those trucks. And, it said all of the crashes were the result of mistakes by human drivers of other vehicles. The crashes were minor and no one was hurt in them. And in each case, the company said, the Aurora truck was able to safely pull off to the side of the road.

Federal records that began in June 2021 show at least 13 crashes with other vehicles involving autonomous tractor-trailers. In all those cases, the crashes were caused by other vehicles changing lanes or hitting trucks from behind. Sometimes, human safety drivers took over just before the crash.

Progress in the U.S. on driverless, or autonomous, technology has slowed in recent years. Several companies had already made plans to launch self-driving taxi services in major cities. But those efforts have repeatedly faced delays.

A “robotaxi” service developed by General Motors, called Cruise, has struggled after one of its vehicles suffered a serious crash. And Alphabet's Waymo is facing opposition to expanding its autonomous rider service in California.

Safety groups have warned that with almost no federal rules covering autonomous vehicles, it will largely be up to companies themselves to decide when their vehicles are safe enough to operate without humans.

Critics say government agencies, including the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, could be doing more to ensure the safety of such programs. They point out that often, safety is only examined and new rules enacted after crashes happen.

But Aurora and other companies argue that years of testing demonstrate that their trucks will actually be safer than human-driven ones. They note that the vehicles' laser and radar sensors can “see” farther than any human eyes can. And the trucks never get tired like humans do. They also are not affected by alcohol or drugs.

“We want to be out there with thousands or tens of thousands of trucks on the road,” said Aurora chief Chris Urmson. "And to do that, we have to be safe, he said. “It’s the only way that the public will accept it.” Urmson, who spoke to The Associated Press, is the former head of Google’s autonomous vehicle operations.

Phil Koopman is a professor at Carnegie Mellon University who studies driverless vehicle safety. He told the AP he agrees that self-driving trucks can theoretically be safer than human-driven ones. But he warned that the vehicles' computers will at times make errors. Koopman said the trucks’ actual performance will depend on the quality of their safety engineering.

With billions of dollars in investments, Koopman said he wonders how autonomous transportation companies will balance safety decisions against cost concerns. “Everything I see indicates they’re trying to do the right thing, but the devil is in the details,” he said.

I’m Bryan Lynn

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