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Autonomous Trucks Set to Roll Solo on Texas Highways by Year’s End

In a bold leap forward for autonomous vehicle technology, Texas drivers may soon witness semitrucks cruising down the highways without a human driver behind the wheel. Spearheading this advancement in the Austin area is Kodiak Robotics, an autonomous truck company that has already been making strides in hauling various goods for major companies like IKEA, C.R. England, and Tyson Foods along Texas roads.

Currently, Kodiak trucks operate with a “safety driver” on board, monitoring the vehicle as it transports freight over long distances. However, by the close of 2024, Kodiak plans to deploy trucks that will operate autonomously, marking a significant milestone in the realm of self-driving vehicles.

This development comes amidst a surge in autonomous vehicle activity in Central Texas. Over the past year, the region has emerged as a hotspot for companies testing and piloting new autonomous technologies. Cruise, another autonomous vehicle company, had deployed over 100 self-driving taxis in Austin before temporarily suspending operations due to safety concerns last October. Meanwhile, Waymo’s self-driving Jaguars have been navigating Austin’s streets since March 6.

According to Dan Goff, head of policy at Kodiak, autonomous trucks present unique advantages over self-driving cars. He highlights the more predictable driving patterns and fewer obstacles encountered by trucks compared to urban taxis, such as pedestrians and traffic lights. Goff explains that Kodiak trucks are equipped with 18 different scanners continuously monitoring the vehicle’s surroundings, ensuring safe navigation.

Moreover, Kodiak employs a sophisticated system that learns from any interventions made by safety drivers, thereby enhancing the trucks’ ability to handle various situations autonomously. Goff asserts that years of data collection and analysis have positioned Kodiak to demonstrate the safety of their autonomous trucks, with expectations of surpassing human drivers in safety in the near future.

In terms of safety records, Kodiak has reported only three minor incidents, contrasting with higher collision rates reported by other autonomous vehicle companies like Waymo and Cruise. Goff attributes this to the different operating environments and fleet sizes, as well as the rigorous safety measures implemented by Kodiak.

The move towards autonomous trucks in Texas aligns with projections indicating significant growth in freight transportation over the coming years. With truck tonnage expected to rise substantially by 2034, there’s a pressing need to address the labor shortage in the trucking industry. Autonomous vehicles offer a potential solution to these challenges, potentially revolutionizing freight transportation and alleviating supply chain constraints.

Support from regulatory bodies like the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) has been crucial in fostering the development of autonomous transportation technologies in the state. Legislation such as Senate Bill 2205, passed in 2017, has created a supportive regulatory environment, allowing companies to innovate and deploy autonomous vehicles without undue bureaucratic hurdles.

In addition to Kodiak, other autonomous truck companies like Gatik and Aurora are poised to expand their operations in Texas, with plans to remove drivers from their vehicles by the year’s end. These developments signal a transformative shift in the transportation landscape, with implications for safety, efficiency, and economic growth.

As Texas continues to embrace autonomous vehicle technologies, initiatives like the development of a “smart corridor” along SH 130 demonstrate the state’s commitment to facilitating the safe integration of autonomous vehicles onto its roadways. Equipped with sensors and cameras, this corridor aims to provide a conducive environment for autonomous vehicles to navigate effectively and securely.

While specific details regarding the launch of the smart corridor remain forthcoming, its development underscores Texas’ proactive approach towards embracing the future of transportation, where autonomous vehicles are poised to play an increasingly prominent role.