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Electric, Driverless Freight Shuttle Might Solve Trucking-Related Problems in Texas

The freight shuttle system is slated for its first commercial rollout at Houston's seaport.

by / September 6, 2016

Trucking has a somewhat outsized effect on the transportation system. Federal regulators have estimated that each tractor-trailer semi does many thousand times more damage to the road than each passenger car. They can cause even more rapid damage in snowy parts of the country as frost melts. And they spew out a disproportionately large amount of greenhouse gas.

Perhaps part of the problem is that they are forced to travel through already-congested corridors.

That’s the premise behind a new technology now officially slated for its first deployment at Houston’s seaport. The freight shuttle system (FSS), technology developed at Texas A&M University, is designed to displace trucks so they can operate in more convenient locations — and it’s an electric, driverless system at that.

“Many [American seaports] stem back to the 1700s. So urban areas have a tendency to grow up around a port, and the port becomes locked in by that urban development. So getting in and out of a port gets increasingly difficult,” said Stephen Roop, inventor of the system and assistant agency director of the Texas Transportation Institute at TAMU.

The technology will be on display on Sept. 9 in Bryan, Texas, as the state’s governor stops by to take a look for himself. The event will also serve as the formal announcement of the agreement between a privately funded licensee of the technology and the Port of Houston to develop a freight shuttle system.

The idea is to provide a means to transport containers from the port to a hub farther out from busy, congested corridors. That way, oversized trucks don’t have to navigate constricting urban streets, saving time, gas and manpower in the process. It’s about efficiency.

As technological innovation moves to solve — or at least mitigate — many of transportation’s ills, some entrepreneurs have started to focus solely on trucking and freight movement. Peloton is testing out technology that allows trucks to “platoon,” or drive closely together using automation, in order to save on fuel. Otto, a startup that Uber recently acquired, has started retrofitting existing semi-trucks to allow them to drive themselves on highways. Columbus, Ohio, is planning on developing a routing application to help move freight more efficiently using money from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge.

There are reasons to innovate for both the government and the trucking industry, Roop said. The government manages the very infrastructure that trucking damages, and seeks to keep congestion in check. The trucking industry faces a chronic shortage of drivers, meaning increased wages, so more efficient driving also means more economical driving.

In Houston, the port is facing a probable increase in traffic — and it’s already one of the busiest seaports in the country.

“They move a tremendous volume of petrochemical traffic [and] bulk commodities," Roop said, "but they also have two growing vibrant container facilities, and with the Panama Canal expansion they’re anticipating a ... natural increase in cargo."

Seaports aren’t the only target for the FSS concept. Roop said it could work anywhere the pain point is high enough — any place where trucks must deal with too much congestion or other obstacles.

One natural fit would be border crossings. Instead of waiting in massively backed-up traffic and heading through security checkpoints, a freight shuttle system could simply carry cargo across borders to trucks waiting on the other side.

“Trucks, then, would circulate domestically and not have to go through the process of crossing an international border with all the security and immigration-type issues,” he said.

Whatever the implementation looks like, Roop expects that it will be the private sector, not government, paying for buildout. That’s because he sees a tangible return on investment on the infrastructure. They would exist along public highways, but the government need not open its coffers to the idea.

“The freight shuttle is designed to augment the trucking industry, who would be among our largest customers,” Roop said.

Ben Miller Associate Editor of GT Data and Business

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.

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