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More Autonomous Big Rigs Are Bound for Interstate 45

Waymo announced earlier this week its fleet of self-driving semi-tractor-trailers would increase to 60. In addition, the company will begin operating on public roads in Texas and Arizona.

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(TNS) — More computer-controlled heavy trucks are coming to Interstate 45, as a partnership between tech company Waymo and trucking titan Daimler moves to its next phase.

As part of its development of level-four redundant autonomous vehicles, Waymo announced earlier this week its fleet of self-driving semi-tractor-trailers would increase to 60, with most being the Cascadia model made by Freightliner, a subsidiary of the German automaker Daimler. In addition, the company will begin operating on public roads in Texas and Arizona.

"Most of these new Cascadia trucks will be tested on I-45," Waymo spokeswoman Julia Illina said in an email.

None of the trucks, yet, are making solo trips, having a human driver present at all times. Level 4 autonomy, however, is the step where designers are confident the truck can respond to conditions and stop itself, even if the human driver takes no action.

Trucks will operate along "the I-45 corridor between Dallas and Houston," company officials said. Waymo did not detail specifics of where the trucks will operate or segments where the computer systems will take control.

"Waymo's trucking operations in general are starting out on commercial routes across the southwestern part of the U.S., with the eventual goal of expanding across the country," Illina said.

Trucks will be tested both empty and carrying cargo, and run daily on I-45 as part of the test.

"Putting a lot of miles in is critical because a lot of challenges have a long tail of rare conditions that we have to be able to deal with," said Boris Sofman, head of engineering for trucking at Waymo.

Waymo, based in Portland, recently expanded by adding a hub for its large truck testing in South Dallas.

The announcement of more software-steered semis builds on the reputation I-45 is generating as a test bed for self-driving trucks. Texas lawmakers have encouraged development of autonomous vehicles by making sure traffic laws do not encumber the companies.

Waymo, specifically its Waymo Via program, last year resumed work on autonomous trucks under a partnership with UPS, while its competitor, Aurora, inked a deal to test computer-controlled trucks with FedEx along I-45. Another, Embark, is operating along Interstate 10 to San Antonio.

Company officials, in an online discussion Tuesday, said the systems have advanced to making testing on public roads more common. The new trucks have redundant braking and steering systems, so in the event the primary system fails, the secondary system takes control. Part of deploying the trucks on public roads allows for them to learn and adapt to driving in various conditions, officials said.

"We understand this is big and a big undertaking," said Suman Narayanan, director of engineering at Daimler Truck North America. "We understand the magnitude of what we have undertaken. We know this requires us to tackle one step at a time."

One of those steps will be driving Texas freeways — where whatever is controlling the truck should expect the unexpected. To illustrate, officials showed footage from some of their trips, shot along I-45 and the Phoenix area. In one video, the location was not detailed, a pickup carrying a barbeque grill jolts, and the grill cascades from the back, bouncing in front the truck as it stops.

"We have quite a repository of things we have seen," Sofman said.

©2022 the Houston Chronicle, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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