Trucking's future, or technology gone too far? ABC13 gets inside look at Texas self-driving trucks

Jonathan Bruce Image
Wednesday, November 22, 2023
You might be passing driverless big rigs soon
Aurora Innovation is pushing for self-driving big rigs on Texas roads and believes its autonomous trucks will transform the industry.

PALMER, Texas (KTRK) -- At a windswept terminal off I-45 in Palmer, Texas, just south of Dallas, Aurora Innovation's proposed future seems to be happening now.

Founded in 2017, the Pittsburgh-based company is all-in on putting self-driving trucks on American roads, working to make inroads in an estimated $900 billion trucking industry. The company believes its autonomous trucks will transform the industry by making long-haul trucking faster, cheaper, and more safe.

ABC13 got an inside look at Aurora's first terminal in Texas, including a ride on I-45 in an autonomous truck.

"Everything we're wearing, eating, using today was likely brought to us on a truck. And whereas goods might take four days now because we have to switch out drivers and travel multiple days, an autonomous vehicle can deliver those goods in a fraction of the time," Ossa Fisher, president of Aurora Innovation Inc., said.

Texas leads the way in the industry, with more trucks, drivers and trailers than any other state. According to the Texas comptroller, there are more than 250,000 commercial trucks on state roads. Around 74% of all goods in the state are moved by truck.

Aurora moves 80-100 commercial loads per week between Houston and Dallas and from Fort Worth to El Paso. Currently, there are safety drivers behind the wheel as the company says it's completing its development and testing phase. The plan is to remove the safety drivers completely in 2024.

"We want to make sure that as we develop, hone, and evolve the software, there's no risk involved in driving these vehicles on the road. So we're learning something every day," Fisher said.


Aurora champions an "ecosystem approach," and the shipping industry seems to be on board: the company has partnered with shipping giants like PACCAR and FedEx to install their software and move freight on certain long-haul routes.

However, the company's current footprint is small, and self-driving trucks face major roadblocks to expansion, such as inevitable safety concerns, questions about the technology in more inclement weather, and pushback from truck driving groups who say autonomy will cost jobs and wages.

Should autonomy prove fruitful in states like Texas, expansion to a uniform regulatory framework in other states is uncertain.

"Texas is where the rubber hits the road literally for Aurora. Texas hauls more freight than any state in the nation. It's a very business and family-friendly state, so it's easy to recruit key talent to the area. Our relationship with legislators and regulators has been very friendly: tough questions, but good questions," Fisher explained.

Federal data shows a worsening picture when it comes to current trucking safety. In 2021, more than 4,700 people died in large truck accidents, a 17% increase from the previous year and around 50% more since 2009. Texas experiences the most.

Aurora and other companies assert autonomous long-haul trucking is actually safer than human drivers with human errors, a premise the U.S. Department of Transportation supported in a 2021 study on its potential impact.

"Those are those seconds, fractions of a second, especially when you talk about stopping a truck at 65 miles an hour is going to take the full length of a football field plus. So anything we can do to assist there, you're seeing that in play today," said John Esparza, president and CEO of the Texas Trucking Association, which represents more than 1,000 companies across the state.

Esparza sees autonomous trucking as the next inevitable advancement in technology to benefit the industry.

"It is about the exploration of making things safer. And that's not an indictment on the human truck driver. It's just a fact of nature," Esparza told ABC13.


Aurora says their technology automates perception but uses human-based decision-making based on thousands upon thousands of simulations. Every second of data on the roads is uploaded to the whole system, so the automated driver continually accumulates knowledge.

But, the current shortage of actual humans to drive trucks could help autonomy find its footing. The American Trucking Association estimates a shortage of around 80,000 drivers nationally.

"We're graduating or retiring a solid demographic of truck drivers, and we're having a much harder time getting the newer generations into trucking. By 2035, we could be anywhere north of 125,000 drivers nationwide, short," Esparza said.

Automated trucking is seen as a solution to fill the void. Some truck driving advocates project it will lead to fewer jobs and lower wages, though studies are mixed. The same federal USDOT 2021 study and a similar University of Michigan study concluded the potential impact on truck driving jobs is mostly unclear because the nature and expansion of autonomy are uncertain.

Fisher asserts the new technology will actually create jobs and lead to a more desirable truck-driving life.

"If we can use technology to keep people safe, get them home to their families, and lead to a more equitable life, then we're excited to do that," she said.

Esparza maintains there is a space for both human and machine drivers on the road.

"Autonomous trucking is not going to solve our shortage when it comes to our drivers. It is the next biggest advancement with technology in our industry," he said.

On I-45, the Aurora trucks drive forward, themselves.

"If we get autonomous trucks right, which I think we will, it will revolutionize how we see our roads. I think you will see the world transform as this technology takes hold," Fisher said.

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