May 23, 2024
      • Autonomous truck developer Aurora Innovation is preparing a driverless truck route between Houston and Dallas, slated to open in 2024.
      • The SAE Level 4 semi trucks are designed to operate between warehouses in the two cities, with Aurora having already launched pilot operations with a number of commercial partners.
      • The company has designed special cargo terminals to work with autonomous trucks, maximizing their time on the road. It includes on-site weight stations allowing trucks to skip inspection sites along highways.
  • Until a few years ago, driverless trucks seemed like something out of a sci-fi film set in the year 2050.
  • Even when robot axis began crowding San Francisco, the concept of self-driving trucks still seemed fairly distant, if only because the bureaucratic hurdles necessary to make something like that happen seemed more impossible than setting robot axis loose in the confines of the Bay Area, even “=” middle=” mile”=” performed=” real=” runs=” trucks=”>as Gatik’s “middle mile” trucks performed real cargo runs in Kansas.
  • But it appears we are now just months away from self-driving semi trucks hitting the road.
  • Aurora Innovation says it has opened the first driverless truck route between Dallas and Houston, in one of the busiest commercial routes in the southwest. The company has also prepared one other crucial piece of infrastructure required to make this work at scale: Commercially ready terminals for autonomous trucks.
      • This Company Is Now Testing Autonomous Semi Trucks
  • “Opening a driverless trucking lane flanked by commercially ready terminals is an industry-first that unlocks our ability to launch our driverless trucking product,” said Sterling Anderson, Co-Founder and Chief Product Officer at Aurora.
  • The trucks themselves will be SAE Level 4 vehicles, able to operate in a geofenced area and travel along a thoroughly mapped and predictable route. This makes them similar in many respects to robotaxis, which are also SAE Level 4 vehicles but operate along far more fluid routes while still being confined to a given number of neighborhoods.
  • More than simply outfitting semi trucks with sensors, Aurora has designed a terminal blueprint intended to maximize the amount of time the trucks spend on the road, with on-site weight stations allowing trucks to skip inspection points on the road.
  • The commercial trucking industry skipped entirely to Level 4 autonomy.
  • “The ability to service and support driverless trucks 24/7/365 is critical to launching a valuable product that can handle dynamic demand,” the company notes.
  • Without the special infrastructure, the concept would not be ready for a commercial rollout.
  • A major part of the commercially ready terminals is Aurora’s command centers, staffed with remote specialists who will oversee around-the-clock operations. The command centers will also house dispatchers who will allocate and schedule the trucks and trailers.
  • Torc Robotics, a unit of Daimler Truck, is another Level 4 hopeful and has been testing its trucks on the road starting this year.
  • Working with pilot customers, Aurora is already transporting 50 loads a week in Texas. Still, in late 2024, the autonomous tech developer plans to launch commercial operations between Houston and Dallas, with the route running along I-45.
  • “With this corridor’s launch, we’ve defined, refined, and validated the framework for the expansion of our network with the largest partner ecosystem in the autonomous trucking industry,” Anderson added.
  • Perhaps the most unexpected aspect of the evolution of autonomous tech when it comes to trucks is that SAE Level 2 and Level 3 systems never really arrived for trucks.
      • Gatik Brings Autonomous Delivery Trucks to Kansas
  • A decade ago, the industry was hopeful that radar and lidar sensors might give human drivers the ability to take their hands off the steering wheel and eyes off the road for extended periods. But given the 50-plus jurisdictions involved, the regulatory and commercial production of these systems never really made it into semi trucks.
  • Instead, the autonomous trucking industry skipped entirely to Level 4, which for the longest time appeared to be largely useful for robotaxis, at least as investors and ride-hailing developers hoped. However, seeing actual profits from Level 4 tech in the robotaxi industry sometime in the next decade is now a shakier proposition than it may have seemed a couple of years ago when Level 4 tech was thought to have been largely figured out in given cities.
  • Instead, robotaxi developers have “invested” billions in the tech, funded by large corporations and investors, with little light at the end of the tunnel.
  • In effect, solving the tech needed for Level 4 robotaxis now appears to have been the easy part–making robotaxis profitable now seems to be the more difficult task.
  • This is where the autonomous trucking industry hopes to distinguish itself.
      • California Suspends GM’s Fleet of Cruise Robotaxis
  • Autonomous vehicle skeptics point out that in both cases, with robotaxis and trucks, the independent tech replaces one type of human job with another, higher-skilled and higher-paid job. Still, the vehicles are now much more complex and more expensive, all for the sake of not having a human behind the wheel.
  • This makes autonomous vehicle operations seem like a very expensive Rube Goldberg device, skeptics say, existing mostly for the benefit of companies that sell and service autonomous vehicle tech, with those costs still carried by the fleet operators.
    • Labor unions argue that such a transition to self-driving cars and trucks won’t even produce cost savings for the industry until some undefined point in the distant future, if ever, due to the expenses and new infrastructure associated with the tech.

Robotaxis are understood to have some coding that governs behavior after solid objects, such as traffic cones, are driven over by the car. Still, the extent to which a Cruise robotaxi can categorize those objects and make decisions accordingly is not known.

Cruise has previously stated in defense of its robotaxi that the car initiated braking some 460 milliseconds after detecting the struck pedestrian heading into its path, or far faster than a human could have reacted.


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