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FedEx-Aurora, Gatik Drive Forward With Vehicle Autonomy

The plot points on the map for autonomous truck lanes continue to grow as driverless vehicle  programs for various uses, from FedEx to Walmart, roll along.

FedEx Corp. and autonomous vehicle technology maker Aurora Innovation said they’re moving ahead with the addition of an autonomous truck lane in Texas earlier than expected as part of a pilot program that began in September.

Aurora has been using its autonomous trucks to haul FedEx packages the 600 miles between Dallas and Houston, including the 2021 holiday season. Some 60,000 total miles in trips have been clocked for the freight company since the pilot’s start.

“Some time ago, I was asked why the general public should care about autonomous trucking. This is why,” Aurora co-founder and chief product officer Sterling Anderson said in a statement. “In six months of working with FedEx, we’ve safely, reliably and efficiently transported packages for tens of thousands of FedEx customers.”

The aim with the company’s Aurora Driver technology, which is being used by FedEx, is to utilize self-driving trucks along long routes that are more taxing on human drivers.

Aurora CEO Chris Urmson, in speaking with analysts earlier this month during the company’s first-quarter earnings call, pointed out the roughly 18-hour, 1,200-mile stretch between Fort Worth and El Paso as an example of where autonomy over a human driver makes sense.

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“The combination of distance and monotony reinforced why lanes such as Forth Worth to El Paso can be so challenging for human drivers. And it is these routes where the driver shortage is felt most acutely,” Urmson said during the conference call.

Aurora has additional pilot programs running with trucking company Werner Enterprises, which was announced in April, and Uber Freight. The company also worked with Toyota on a fleet of autonomous Sienna vans for passenger rides, which were revealed in March.

The same day FedEx and Aurora announced the expansion of their pilot, middle mile autonomous vehicle technology maker Gatik also delivered news it plans to roll out its vehicles in Kansas. The move follows the state’s passage of Senate Bill 313, which outlines the use of autonomous vehicles and how they will be regulated in Kansas.

Gatik operates a fleet of light- and medium-duty vehicles aimed at business-to-business short-haul routes. It turned heads with its autonomous delivery service last year for Walmart.

The tech company and retailer helped push the bill through the Kansas legislature, and it’s not the first time the two worked together to press policymakers on vehicle autonomy. Both companies proposed in 2019 autonomous vehicle legislation in Arkansas, where Walmart is headquartered.

The company’s trucks first began doing several deliveries daily for Walmart in August 2021. The vehicles saw the removal of a safety driver in those trucks, the first time for Gatik, in November for a route moving goods between a Walmart store and Neighborhood Market in Bentonville, Ark.

Gatik also has vehicles running in Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana domestically, in addition to Ontario.

The tech companies aren’t the only ones making headway with their autonomous vehicles.

Kodiak Robotics’ self-driving trucks in April launched a 750-mile self-driving route between Dallas-Fort Worth and Atlanta with trucking company U.S. Xpress. The move pushed the driverless vehicles the farthest east they’ve ever traveled. Wilson Logistics, the company that sold its West Coast business to an Ashley Furniture affiliate, is working on developing autonomous freight lanes in the Midwest with Locomation.

The flurry of activity around vehicle autonomy has led to calls for greater uniformity in regulating the industry. Supporters of vehicle autonomy hail the technology for creating goods movement efficiencies, while eliminating accidents on the road. Others are taking a more cautious approach, calling out a need to carefully study the impact on drivers and also the element of safety.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) is expected to come out with new rules for autonomous driving technology in trucks and other commercial vehicles in November. Meanwhile, the House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit held a hearing in February to hear different industry perspectives on vehicle autonomy.