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How Safe Are North Texas’ Self-Driving Delivery Trucks?

The Dallas metro area has quietly become the new frontier for the development of autonomous trucking, with several companies from around the world setting up operations there.

(TNS) — For anyone who likes to complain about North Texas drivers, it might sound alarming to know that soon they will be sharing the highways with transport trucks that don’t have a driver at all.

The Metroplex has quietly become the new frontier for the development of autonomous trucking, with several companies from around the world setting up operations here — and using North Texas highways for real-world testing.

For now, these delivery trucks making stops at Sam’s Clubs, Krogers and other destinations do have a human behind the wheel — a safety driver in case of emergencies or technology glitches. Soon, that will no longer be the case.

The worsening shortage of people to fill trucking jobs is fueling a race among companies to bring to market a dominant driverless technology for the future of moving goods on the nation’s highways. Several of the largest industry players are now in North Texas, lured by the region’s central location on the transportation network and the state’s looser regulations.

But that also has some experts worried about just how safe driverless trucks really are, given the technology is so new. An added concern for North Texas is that the companies are testing their trucks on highways here.

Fort Worth: A new hub for autonomous trucking

In Fort Worth’s Near Southside neighborhood, Volvo Autonomous Solutions, a division of the Swedish truck and vehicle manufacturer, opened an office in April focused on commercializing, selling and delivering autonomous solutions globally.

The office at 401 Bryan Ave. will start Volvo’s U.S. highway activities aimed at transporting goods to and from customer hubs on long-haul trucks.

In partnership with self-driving technology company Aurora, Volvo plans to get a fleet delivering on one lane between Fort Worth and El Paso, and another between Dallas and Houston.

To the north, AllianceTexas is home to a Mobility Innovation Zone, which allows for the testing, scaling and commercialization of new technologies. Experts say the zone gives Fort Worth a shot at becoming the Silicon Valley of mobility and innovation.

Autonomous deliverer Gatik expanded to Alliance in mid-2021, where it operates a research and development facility and North Texas operations hub. With offices in Canada and California, Gatik specializes in middle-mile deliveries up to around 300 miles round-trip.

Gatik’s self-driving trucks deliver to more than 30 Sam’s Club locations in the Metroplex. It recently went live with Kroger, moving goods from customer fulfillment centers to grocery stores across North Texas.

Alliance also is home to self-driving trucking companies TuSimple, based in San Diego, and the Swedish company Einride.

Meanwhile, Google subsidiary Waymo is testing self-driving trucks on Interstate 45 between Dallas and Houston, and California-based Kodiak Robotics operates most of its self-driving operations out of Dallas.

Why are all the key players coming to North Texas?

Ian Kinne, director of logistics innovation at AllianceTexas developer Hillwood, said Texas has been the prove-it state for the industry. Kinne said he thinks the state wants to understand the technology and work with these companies to help them commercialize.

“DFW has really become the spot for autonomous trucking in the U.S.,” Kinne said.

Texas is attractive to these companies because of its limited regulation, and because a lot of freight is already moving on its highways.

Texas does not require autonomous trucks to have a safety driver, but Kinne said most companies still use one to “promote safety in the remote chance an issue occurs.”

Kinne said safety is the first thing many of the autonomous trucking companies talk about. And, he said, wide-scale adoption of autonomous driving will be a gradual process.

While some states have different rules on testing and deploying autonomous trucks, Texas is very hands off on regulation, experts say. Texas’ regulatory environment means we could see more of these trucks on our roads.

But that’s concerning to Philip Koopman, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University who has been working on self-driving car safety for more than 25 years.

Autonomous trucking companies decide for themselves when they think their vehicles are safe enough to operate on public roads, Koopman said.

“The government probably made that decision for jobs and economic growth,” Koopman said. “But the cost of that decision is you’re potentially putting other road users at risk, and there’s no way to figure out how safe it is. That’s the trade-off that’s been made.”

Koopman said companies face tremendous pressure to get on the road, show progress and maintain investment of stakeholders.

“One hopes the companies are responsible,” Koopman said. “Some have proven they are. Some have proven they are not. Under that kind of financial pressure, even the best leadership might find themselves with pressure to deploy even if they’re not ready. That’s a tough position to be in.”

Koopman said he would prefer to see external oversight that would relieve that pressure on companies to decide when is safe to remove the driver from behind the wheel.

How do self-driving trucks work?

While companies’ techniques in mastering autonomous trucking vary, there are some common overlaps. Many companies use computer mapping to plan the path of a self-driving truck.

In the case of Volvo, sensors log data while driving on a road that helps a computer understand the surroundings.

Ceren Wende, the head of marketing and communications for Volvo Autonomous Solutions, said the company can then simulate pop-up scenarios that would change road conditions. These include construction zones, weather and obstacles like animals or the occasional pedestrian.

“We repeatedly train the virtual driver and hardware on these different scenarios and validate the results with real-world driving so we know that the vehicle will behave safely in these situations,” Wende said.

Meanwhile, Gatik’s trucks are in continual two-way communication with the company’s remote monitoring centers. Richard Steiner, Gatik’s head of policy and communications, said from there, employees monitor the fleet and can provide remote assistance if there is a lane closure or unexpected construction.

“Gatik’s remote supervision system has been developed to leverage human intuition, which ensures our autonomous fleet remains fundamentally independent, while safeguarding certain advantages of human-to-vehicle collaboration,” Steiner said.

While maps do a lot of the heavy lifting, they’re not necessarily foolproof, experts say. Self-driving expert Koopman said one problem is making sure frequently changing construction zones get updated on computer maps.

“People will say they’re going to put all the construction zones on a map, but the first vehicle to see a construction zone doesn’t know it’s there,” Koopman said. “That can help other vehicles after the first one, but if that first vehicle is an automated truck, and it doesn’t know how construction zones work, you’ve got a problem.”

One thing Koopman is not worried about is autonomous trucks merging and changing lanes. Most companies have spent considerable time teaching their vehicles to merge with the right amount of assertiveness based on the culture of the city to match prevailing traffic conditions, he said.

Koopman does worry about unusual things that happen on the ride, like overturned vehicles, bicyclists, crossing animals, grass fires and emergency vehicles. While the industry promotes safety, Koopman argues, there is not tangible proof or data to support autonomous trucks being safer than human drivers.

“They could be safer — I’d be delighted if they were — but we don’t know,” Koopman said. “We can’t set policies assuming they’re safer, because there’s no data.”

Despite his safety reservations, Koopman acknowledged the U.S. trucking industry’s labor shortage is a legitimate reason to pursue autonomous technology. The American Trucking Associations estimated a shortage of nearly 78,000 drivers last year and projects the shortage could surpass 160,000 drivers by 2030.

Meanwhile, leaders across the industry affirm safety is their main priority, and while North Texas trucks may still have a safety driver inside the vehicle, that’s not the case everywhere.

How soon will we see trucks without a human driver?

Before coming to North Texas, Gatik began operations with food retailer Loblaw in Canada and went fully driverless last year.

The company also began commercial operations with Walmart in Arkansas, where the retailer is based, in June 2019. Gatik pulled the safety driver out of its trucks in August 2021, Steiner said.

“Safety is table stakes, front and center of everything we do,” Steiner said. “It runs deep within the fabric of the company. We always commence operations with a safety driver on board for safety, validation and verification purposes as we ramp up towards driver out on every single new route.

It took about two years to go driver-out in Arkansas, and about 19 months to go driver-out in Canada, Steiner said.

“As we ramp up towards driver-out with our customers in Texas, that timeline will continue to shrink,” Steiner said.

Steiner said Gatik is looking to remove drivers from vehicles in North Texas by 2024.

Volvo’s Sasko Cuklev, head of on-road solutions, could only say his company is “getting close.”

“We don’t have all the answers,” Cuklev said. ‘There is a transformation ongoing. We of course want to be part of that, but also learn along the way what is feasible and what is not.”

Cuklev said the race is not to necessarily be first on the road, but rather to develop an industrialized, safe and scalable solution that is commercially viable. Volvo has an ambition to be “one of the winners here,” Cuklev said.

“Everything we do, we do with safety in mind, and we will never compromise on that,” Cuklev said.

© 2023 Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.