Self-driving robotrucks to be put to the test in Texas’ deadliest highway

Alphabet-owned AV tech company Waymo is partnering with truck fleet operator J.B. Hunt to test human-supervised self-driving big rigs to deliver cargo between Houston and Fort Worth, Texas, per TechCrunch. Waymo rivals such as TuSimple, Kodiak Robotics, and Aurora are also conducting Level 4 autonomous truck testing in the same area, per FleetOwner. Interstate 45 is considered one of the most dangerous roads in the US. The deadliest section of the highway runs through Houston, where there are 56.5 fatal accidents for every 100 miles of roadway.

J.B. Hunt’s robotrucks will be able to drive themselves on the freeway and will each have a licensed driver and a software technician onboard. The tests on I-45 conform to the Society of Safety Engineers’ definition of Level 4 AVs, or vehicles that can operate without a human driver behind the wheel, but only in specific geographic areas or under specific conditions. The objective of the tests is to see how AV technology can be integrated across fleets to enhance safety and efficiency. Waymo and J.B. Hunt will receive data and feedback to determine future best practices for regular maintenance, what layouts facilities should have, and which lanes are best suited for autonomous driving technology.

Testing of AVs dipped during the pandemic, but this news and other Level 4 tests show they are picking up again. Waymo has a decade of experience, and a slew of partnerships including a project with Daimler to build autonomous trucks and pre existing agreements with Renault-Nissan, Fiat Chrysler, Jaguar Land Rover, and Volvo. Waymo claims its autonomous vehicles have driven more than 20 million miles on public roads, which has generated a massive data set for its technologies.

The move to test the deployment of robotrucks comes just as the trucking industry is facing a shortage of drivers, but union leaders are pushing back due to potential loss of jobs. Because 71% of all freight tonnage is moved on the nation’s highways, robotrucks are seen as one of the solutions to curtail the effects of the driver shortage. However, union leaders oppose self-driving trucks, citing loss of job opportunities especially for minority groups: “Putting the significant safety concerns aside, one study shows that 4 million jobs will likely be lost if a rapid transition is made to automate the industry,” said the Teamsters Union in a statement. “That would be devastating in a field where more than 93% of the workers have less than a college degree and would likely incur significant challenges in getting work at a similar wage.”