Aurora expects the Texas truck fleet to be fully autonomous by the end of 2024
Palmer, Texas — Tune into WFAA News at 10pm on Monday, November 13 to see the full story.
The concept of self-driving vehicles was once a topic for the future, but not anymore — and certainly not in Texas, which has become a magnet for technology companies working in the field of self-driving.
A short 30-mile drive on Interstate 45 from downtown Dallas to the small town of Palmer, Texas, that future stands at a station operated by Aurora, a transportation company that plans to make its fleet of self-driving trucks fully autonomous. Shipments through Texas by the end of 2024.
“Autonomy is absolutely here,” Aurora President Osa Fisher said.
Many Texas drivers have likely driven alongside these self-driving trucks on highways without even noticing: For now, to meet its own internal safety protocols, Aurora is currently operating 75 independent truckloads across Texas each week To partners like FedEx, Uber Freight, Warner, and Schneider, to name a few. Each trip is accompanied by a long-serving driver and operations specialist, who sit behind the wheel and passenger seat respectively to provide safety procedures, feedback and training to the Aurora systems – while they are in the truck.
“We drive self-driving loads every day on Texas highways,” Fisher said, noting that her company has already fully mapped shipping routes from Dallas to Houston and back, and from Fort Worth to El Paso and back.
Although humans are currently sitting in taxis, technology is actually lifting the burden on these drives. On a flight during a transport flight in September, WFAA was able to observe the technology firsthand. Throughout the trip, the driver kept his fingers inches from the steering wheel, and his foot close to the pedal — just in case he needed to take over. But he barely flinched. Instead, it was Aurora’s technology that moved the entire truck, even changing lanes to avoid merging traffic.
Aurora’s fleet does this by processing information obtained from long-range sensors, radar and cameras equipped with each of its trucks. Fisher said her trucks can see up to four football fields in front of their locations on the highway at a given time. Processing this information allows the truck to respond to lane changes 9 to 11 seconds faster than humans, she said.
“We can see an almost 360-degree view of the world,” Fisher said.
Nearly 20 percent of the nation’s shipments pass through Texas, which explains how the state finds itself at the forefront of this trend. It also helps that state policies have long played an integral role in fostering an environment that supports trucking. Fisher said weather, favorable laws and geographic strategic business partners made Texas an obvious choice for her company’s headquarters.
Heck, even Texas truck drivers say they’re on board with this future, too.
Gary Babbitt has spent more than four decades driving trucks. Babbitt, a Texas and national Driver of the Year, said he has driven 5.4 million miles during his career, without a single accident. He now works as a consultant for self-driving truck technology. He said He’s done the research, and believes self-driving trucks are a necessary complement to the severe driver shortage.
“It’s all about safety and saving lives,” Babbitt said. “Sure, you’ll have skeptics.”
Critics worry about road safety and the technology that could be hacked. They point out that autonomous driving, so far, has not proven effective in cold climates where ice and snow can make driving more difficult. Aurora has recognized this as a growth point and will work to address it.
“We stayed away from the ice and snow,” Fisher said. “That’s definitely the plan to bring it into the fold.”
Meanwhile, in Texas anyway, skeptics are largely left in the dust of self-driving trucks.
John Esparza, president of the Texas Trucking Association, said he welcomes the automated future of his industry.
“That truck is actually reacting to something I can’t even see happening,” he said. “(And) we can’t keep up with the amount of freight coming through our state (as it is).”
It is also important to note that truck drivers will remain part of the equation for the foreseeable future. As Aurora expands across Sunbelt states from coast to coast, its routes will be planned as hub-to-hub deliveries, with human drivers handling shipments at those ports and bringing them to their final destinations.
This model could go a long way toward improving work-life balance for truck drivers, Esparza noted.
“It’s revolutionary and evolutionary,” Esparza said. “You’ll see more opportunities for drivers to get home at night.”