Jan 28, 2024

Driverless Truck Companies Aim to Eliminate Human Copilots

In recent years, the concept of driverless trucks has shifted from a far-fetched idea to a reality that is rapidly gaining traction in the transportation industry. Companies such as Tesla, Waymo, and TuSimple have made significant strides in developing and testing autonomous trucks that can operate without a human copilot.

With the potential to revolutionize the trucking industry by increasing efficiency, reducing costs, and minimizing human error, it is no surprise that driverless truck companies are on a mission to eliminate the need for human copilots. However, this advancement in technology raises questions and concerns about the future of truck drivers and the impact on the economy.

In this article, we will explore the current state of driverless truck technology, the companies leading the charge in this field, and the potential implications for the trucking industry and the workforce.

Determined to Introduce Driverless Trucks

Three startup companies, Aurora Innovation, Kodiak Robotics, and Gatik AI, are determined to introduce driverless trucks on Texas highways, despite objections from critics who believe financial motives, rather than safety, are driving their timeline. These companies have been extensively testing their technology for years, combining software with a range of sensors like cameras, radar, and lidar to guide the trucks.

They have already successfully delivered cargo for major companies like Walmart, Kroger, FedEx, and Tyson Foods.

Aurora's co-founder and CEO, Chris Urmson, stated in an interview that by the end of the year, they anticipate operating trucks without human drivers. All three companies claim to be ready for deployment, acknowledging the slim margin for error involved.

However, they believe the potential benefits of improved highway safety and lower transportation costs outweigh the risks.

Critics argue that the companies are driven by a desire to minimize investor losses incurred during the development and testing phases. Concerns have been raised about the lack of regulation, transparency, and comprehensive data collection surrounding this technology.

Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, expressed worries about these issues, along with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, a union representing drivers and warehouse workers, who also oppose this development.

Highly Risky

According to opponents, trucks are considered to be highly risky due to their ability to travel at highway speeds while weighing up to 80,000 pounds, which is more than 15 times the weight of General Motors Co.'s troubled Cruise driverless robotaxi.

As of now, the responsibility of regulating driverless large trucks has been primarily delegated to individual states by the federal government, resulting in a fragmented set of rules. In October, California decided to halt Cruise operations following a series of incidents in San Francisco.

The absence of comprehensive regulations in California for testing trucks on public roads prompted three driverless truck companies, along with others, to shift their focus to Texas for testing and deployment.

Driverless trucks face fewer challenges compared to Cruise's robotaxis on the streets of San Francisco. Unpredictable pedestrians, abrupt road closures, and emergency vehicles pose less of a concern for trucks as they predominantly operate on fixed routes, primarily on highways, minimizing their need for interaction with passenger vehicles and pedestrians.

The Advantage Of Being Able To Operate

In addition to reducing labor costs, autonomous trucks have the advantage of being able to operate for longer durations compared to human drivers who are limited to an 11-hour driving limit. These trucks are equipped with sensors that scan their surroundings multiple times per second, enabling quicker response times by identifying objects.

This enhanced awareness allows the vehicles to maintain a steady speed just below the limit, resulting in potential emissions savings of at least 10%, as highlighted by the companies involved.

The issue of safety also comes into play when considering human drivers. Startling statistics from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration reveal that in 2021 alone, fatal crashes involved a staggering number of large trucks weighing over 10,001 pounds.

A majority of these dire incidents were attributed to trucks with a gross weight of 33,001 pounds or more, which are comparable in size to the trucks in the Kodiak and Aurora fleets.

Vulnerable to Collisions

While autonomous trucks have not been at fault for any accidents when tested with safety drivers, the FMCSA report cautions that they may still be vulnerable to collisions. The report emphasizes that nearly two-thirds of fatal accidents occur when a person, object, animal, or another vehicle unexpectedly enters a truck's lane.

Hence, the crucial role of a self-driving truck's computer system in gathering data to determine the cause of such accidents cannot be understated.

Companies intending to adopt driverless technology this year must demonstrate more than just superiority over human drivers, according to Brian Ossenbeck, a transportation industry analyst with JPMorgan Chase & Co. They must strive to achieve a level of performance that surpasses human capabilities, at least initially, until widespread acceptance of this technology is achieved.

The time it will take to reach this level of acceptance remains uncertain.

Meeting the Goal

A worker at Aurora's terminal near Dallas is diligently cleaning sensors on a Peterbilt truck, while a safety driver remains inside the cab, prepared for the truck's departure. If everything proceeds as planned, the safety driver, who currently keeps their hands near the wheel without touching it during transit, will soon become unnecessary for the 200-mile journey to Houston.

Aurora's CEO, Urmson, believes that the driverless experience will feel like any other day, except this time the truck will hit the road without anyone behind the wheel. The success of Aurora's driverless goal by the end of 2024 is of great interest to Wall Street, with analyst Jeff Osborne from TD Cowen stating that investors will raise concerns about cash burn if there are any delays.

To sustain operations until the second half of 2025, Aurora raised $850 million this summer. Urmson further disclosed that the company plans to raise a similar amount to support its operations until 2027 when it expects to turn a profit.

Already Achieved Driverless Truck Operations

Gatik AI, another startup based in Mountain View, California, has already achieved driverless truck operations in Arkansas and Canada. Using smaller box trucks, Gatik intends to focus on delivering goods from distribution centers to stores.

By 2024, the company aims to expand its driverless truck deployment on a significant scale in the Dallas area, according to CEO Gautam Narang.

Kodiak, also headquartered in Mountain View, plans to adopt a cautious approach by starting small in 2024 and gradually expanding its operations. CEO Don Burnette, who founded the company in 2018, emphasized the importance of building confidence in their system and avoiding the mistakes made by robotaxis in San Francisco, which caused significant damage.

Initially, Kodiak will conduct driverless operations on short runs near their truck terminal south of Dallas before expanding further. The companies have established partnerships with truck ports to facilitate refueling their diesel-powered fleets and to provide roadside assistance when needed.

Open Road

Currently, self-driving trucks are primarily allowed in southern states, ranging from Arizona to Florida. One notable company, Kodiak, has been successfully transporting cargo with a safety driver on routes from Dallas to Atlanta and from Houston to Oklahoma City.

Many companies have chosen to begin their operations in the southern region due to the milder winter weather conditions. The state of Texas was an early adopter of legislation permitting the use of driverless trucks back in 2017.

In collaboration with startups, state authorities have actively addressed concerns related to inspections and the interaction between law enforcement and autonomous trucks. The Texas Department of Transportation released a statement emphasizing their expectation that autonomous vehicles will enhance safety, drive economic growth, and improve the overall transportation experience for Texans.

However, it is crucial for these self-driving startups to acknowledge that both state and federal regulators retain the power to issue recalls and halt the operation of vehicles if they are deemed to pose an unreasonable risk to the general public. Ultimately, the future of the trucking industry will hinge upon the successful completion of initial driverless journeys, ensuring a seamless transition towards automation.

In Conclusion

The rise of driverless trucking is a rapidly evolving industry that has the potential to transform the transportation and shipping sector. While there are still challenges to overcome and concerns to address, the advancements and investments in this technology show a promising future for the efficiency and safety of long-haul trucking.

However, it is important to also consider the potential impact on jobs and the need for regulations to ensure responsible implementation. With further developments and improvements, driverless trucks may soon become a common sight on our highways, revolutionizing the way goods are transported.

If you want to stay updated with a wide range of trends, actionable insights, and innovative solutions in the trucking, freight, and logistics industry, stay connected to us.

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