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Autonomous Truck Tech Shifts Into Full Gear

Kodiak Roboticsself-driving trucks are pushing the boundaries of where autonomous trucking can go as adoption of the technology also speeds along.

The Mountain View, Calif.-based company said Monday it is launching a Dallas-Fort Worth to Atlanta self-driving route with trucking company U.S. Xpress, representing an expansion to the East Coast.

“We believe it is the furthest east any company has delivered to multiple loads using autonomous technology,” Kodiak founder and CEO Don Burnette said in a statement Monday. “Having the capacity to sustain 24/7 operations across the more than 750 miles between Dallas and Atlanta—two of our nation’s busiest freight hubs—represents a giant step forward for Kodiak and for the [autonomous vehicle] trucking industry as a whole.”

The two companies late last month completed four roundtrip tests made along the service route. The trucks ran 24 hours a day at a total distance of roughly 6,350 miles.

Kodiak’s announcement is the latest in a flurry of activity around autonomous trucking technology.

Last week Aurora Innovation said its self-driving technology would be used by Werner Enterprises on a Texas route running from Fort Worth to El Paso. Wilson Logistics, which late last year sold its West Coast trucking business to an affiliate of retailer Ashley Furniture, said in March it would work on six autonomous freight lanes with Locomation in the Midwest before deploying more than 1,000 autonomous trucks.  TuSimple said last month it was looking to hunker down on its U.S. self-driving business as it explores a sale of its China division. Waymo, a unit of Alphabet, and UPS said in November they would begin testing autonomous semi-truck deliveries in Texas.

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The partnerships come as the Department of Transportation (DOT) also looks to embrace new technologies on the road.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said as much in January when he spoke at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, announcing a set of principles that focuses on building a competitive transportation system that still supports workers.

Buttigieg went on to tout in a speech last month to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation officials the need for “embracing new innovative technologies that are really going to shape the future of what it means to get around communities and get around this country.”

The need for autonomous trucks is certainly there, creating a pathway to quicker adoption than self-driving passenger cars by comparison, pointed out Monitor Deloitte principal Ashok Divakaran.

“Trucking is definitely moving forward at a slightly faster pace than on the passenger side, and I think there are a variety of reasons for that,” he said. “One is that the business case on the trucking side is very clear in terms of economic benefit, increased capacity utilization. Another is cost savings.”

Divakaran, who leads the firm’s connected and autonomous vehicles business for the U.S., also pointed to the Sun Belt, in places such as Phoenix and Dallas-Fort Worth, that see a high volume of commercial trucks. Practically speaking, the weather conditions in those areas—sunny and open roads are ideal for self-driving trucks—are one of the reasons those routes have been used in so many pilots.

Waymo Via Autonomous Truck
A Waymo Via autonomous truck. Courtesy

Regulatory environment

Meanwhile, the federal government is trying to stay on top of the technology in creating uniform safety standards.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) said Nov. 23 it plans on publishing updated rules for automated driving technology in commercial vehicles when it comes to maintenance inspections, repair and other elements.

The House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit held a hearing in February to further explore autonomy on U.S. roads. The hearing, called “The Road Ahead for Automated Vehicles,” pooled viewpoints from labor, academia, safety and autonomous vehicle technology companies.

Supporters of vehicle autonomy have long argued the technology could improve freight handling efficiencies, while also reducing the number of accidents on the road.

“AV technology will not only make our roads safer, but also can transform our transportation system by making it more accessible, efficient and sustainable,” said the Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association’s (AVIA) general counsel Ariel Wolf in testimony during the hearing.

The AVIA represents the autonomous vehicle industry and was started by Ford Motor, Waymo, Lyft, Volvo and Uber.

The push for the technology comes amid a truck driver shortage that the American Trucking Associations estimated at around 80,000, along with e-commerce and on-demand delivery pressures placed on the transportation system.

Labor unions have promoted careful consideration of technology’s impact on drivers, while also raising safety concerns.

“The impact that AVs will have on workers is still unknown,” Doug Bloch, political director for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Joint Council 7, said in his hearing testimony. “But attempting to tackle these issues after the fact is not acceptable. Congress has a unique opportunity to mitigate these impacts before they happen.”

Bloch went on to use the example of Teamsters members working in California canneries, with membership at one time numbering about 100,000. He blamed automation for membership plummeting to about 15,000.

Overall, regulation is not likely to stem the deployment of self-driving trucks, but will help clarify how companies can strategize around their deployment of the technology.

There’s recognition that the technology is coming, Deloitte’s Divakaran said. It’s a matter now of codifying safety standards, particularly to assuage any public safety concerns, while also creating a roadmap for autonomous industry companies.

“I think regulation, overall, is good,” Divakaran said, “and the industry views it as good because what the industry needs is a standardized, predictable framework that they can use to base the way they handle the rollout.”