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

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PITTSBURGH (AP) — On a three-lane test track along the Monongahela River, an 18-wheel tractor-trailer made a turn. There was no one on board.

A quarter mile away, the truck's sensors spotted a trash can blocking one lane and a tire in the other. In less than a second he signaled, moved into the open lane and thundered past the obstacles.

The self-driving semi, equipped with 25 laser, radar and camera sensors, is owned by Pittsburgh-based Aurora Innovation. By the end of this year, Aurora plans to transport freight on Interstate 45 between the Dallas and Houston areas with 20 self-driving trucks.

Within three or four years, Aurora and its competitors expect to put thousands of such self-driving trucks on America's public highways. The aim is for the trucks, which can operate virtually around the clock without breaks, to speed up the flow of goods, speed up delivery times and perhaps reduce costs. They also travel short distances on secondary roads.

The companies say the autonomous trucks will also save fuel because they won't have to stop and will travel at more consistent speeds.

The image of a fully loaded, 70,000-pound self-driving truck weaving around cars at 60 mph or more can be terrifying. An AAA poll in January found that a decisive majority of American drivers – 66% – said they were afraid of driving an autonomous vehicle.

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

For years, it seemed like the first venture for autonomous vehicles would be driving in big cities. But General Motors' Cruise robotaxi unit is dealing with the aftermath of a serious crash. And Alphabet's Waymo is facing resistance to expanding its autonomous ride-hailing service in California. The result is that self-driving trucks are poised to become the first computer-controlled vehicles to be widely deployed on public roads.

The vehicles have drawn skepticism from safety advocates, who warn that because there are virtually no federal regulations, it will be largely up to the companies themselves to determine when the semis are safe enough to operate without people on board. The critics complain that federal agencies, including the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, take a generally passive approach to safety, typically taking action only after a crash has occurred. And most states provide little regulation.

But Aurora and other companies developing the systems say years of testing show their trucks will actually be safer than human-driven trucks. They note that the vehicles' laser and radar sensors can “see” further than human eyes. The trucks never get tired, like human drivers do. They are never distracted or impaired by alcohol or drugs.

“We want to be there with thousands or tens of thousands of trucks on the road,” he said Chris Urmson, CEO of Aurora and former head of Google's autonomous vehicle business. “And to do that, we have to be safe. It's 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 the safety of vehicle automation, said he agreed that self-driving trucks could theoretically be safer than human-driven trucks — precisely because there are no drivers who are distracted or may become disabled. But he warned that the vehicles' computers will inevitably make mistakes. And according to him, how the trucks will perform in practice will depend on the quality of their safety technology.

With billions of dollars in investments at stake, Koopman wonders how the companies will weigh safety decisions against cost considerations.

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

At the test track, reporters watched as Aurora's semifinalists dodged simulations of road obstacles, including pedestrians, a flat tire and even a horse. But the trucks were only traveling at 56 kilometers per hour in a controlled environment, without anything unexpected happening. (The trucks are tested with human safety drivers on Texas highways at speeds of 65 mph or higher.)

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

Since 2021, Aurora trucks have autonomously transported freight over 1 million miles on public highways, but with human safety drivers in the cabs. There have been only three accidents, Urmson said, all caused by errors by human drivers in other vehicles.

A federal database launched in June 2021 shows at least thirteen crashes with other vehicles involving autonomous semis, including three involving Aurora. In all cases, the accidents were caused by other vehicles changing lanes or rear-ending trucks. Sometimes human safety drivers took over just before the crash.

Aurora won't compromise safety, Urmson said, even though guaranteeing it could delay the timeline for achieving profits.

“If we put a vehicle on the road that is not sufficiently safe – that we don't have confidence in its safety – then it kills everything else,” he said.

When Urmson showcased the trucks to Wall Street analysts in Pittsburgh last month, he said the publicly traded company expects to turn a profit in late 2027 or early 2028. To achieve that goal, Aurora must succeed in putting thousands of trucks on the road. , transport freight from terminal to terminal and collect mileage reimbursement from customers.

The company's competitors – Plus.ai, Gatik, Kodiak Robotics and others – also plan to soon put self-driving trucks on the road that transport freight for customers. Gatik expects this to happen this year or next year; the others have not set a timetable.

Kodiak CEO Don Burnette said highways are a better environment for autonomous vehicles than busy cities where robotaxis operate. There are fewer pedestrians and fewer unexpected things happening. Yet there are higher speeds and longer braking distances.

In testing on highways with human backup drivers, Burnette said, Kodiak has never experienced a crash where the trucks were to blame.

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

Almost every year in the United States, a tractor-trailer crashes into traffic stopped due to road construction, often resulting in deaths and injuries. In contrast, Burnette says, autonomous trucks are constantly paying attention and always seeing 360 degrees.

Maybe. But at a Buc-ee's mega-supermarket and gas station along Interstate 45, about 35 miles south of Dallas, the prospect of driverless semis sounded a little daunting.

“It sounds like a disaster waiting to happen,” said Kent Franz, a high school basketball coach in Chandler, Oklahoma, who was traveling to Houston for a wedding. “I've heard about the self-driving cars – Tesla, what have you – and the accidents they've had. Eighteen-wheelers? Something that heavy, relying on technology that has been proven to be defective? Doesn't seem very comfortable to me.”

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

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

There are no federal regulations specifically addressing autonomous vehicles, Carnegie Mellon's Koopman noted. Most states do not have such rules either. Koopman said the automated vehicle industry has persuaded many states to ban local governments from enacting such regulations. The result, he said, is that the public must trust the companies that deploy autonomous semis.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, both part of the federal Department of Transportation, have no authority to prevent autonomous vehicles from taking to the road. However, if something goes wrong, they can demand recalls or take trucks out of service.

“You cannot expect the government to protect you here,” Koopman said. “The company is going to decide when they think they are safe, and all the regulator is going to do is assess them afterwards.”

Over the past five years, the motor carrier administration has established safety standards for trucks with automated driving systems. The standards regulate inspections, maintenance and remote monitoring of the trucks. But it is unclear when the rules will emerge from the regulatory process.

In the meantime, autonomous semis say they can help address the truck driver shortage, which the industry estimates at 64,000 drivers. Yet there are also concerns that autonomous trucks will eventually displace human drivers and cost them their livelihoods.

The Teamsters union, which represents about 600,000 drivers, most of whom are truckers, is pushing state lawmakers to require human drivers to monitor the self-driving systems, arguing they are unsafe. A 2021 Transportation Department study concluded that nationwide adoption of fully automated semi-trucks is still years away, giving drivers time to transition to other transportation and logistics jobs that will be created.

Aurora's Urmson said he thinks driverless semis will complement the work already done by human drivers because a growing population will require moving many more goods.

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

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AP Business Writer David Koenig contributed to this report from Dallas and AP Data Journalist Aaron Kessler in Washington.

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