On a three-lane test track near the Monongahela River, an 18-wheel tractor-trailer rounded a bend. Nobody was on board.

A quarter mile ahead, the truck’s sensors detected a trash can blocking one lane and a tire in another. In less than a second, it signaled, entered the unencumbered lane, and rumbled past the barriers.

Aurora Innovation of Pittsburgh owns the self-driving truck, which is packed with 25 laser, radar, and video sensors. Aurora intends to begin delivering freight on Interstate 45 between Dallas and Houston later this year, using 20 driverless vehicles.

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Within three or four years, Aurora and its competitors hope to have thousands of self-driving trucks on America’s public highways. The idea is for the vehicles, which can drive almost continuously, to speed up the flow of goods, reducing delivery times and potentially lowering prices. In addition, they will go short distances on side roads.

The companies claim that the autonomous trucks would also save gasoline since they will not have to stop and will travel at more steady speeds.

The picture of a fully loaded, 80,000-pound driverless truck weaving around motorists on a superhighway at 65 mph or more may evoke fear. According to a January AAA poll, a clear majority of American drivers—66%—would be afraid to ride in an autonomous vehicle.

However, in less than nine months, Aurora’s seven-year research experiment will conclude, and driverless trucks will begin transporting goods between terminals for FedEx, Uber Freight, Werner, and other partners. Aurora and most of its competitors intend to start running freight lines in Texas, where snow and ice are uncommon.

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For years, it appeared that the first initiative for autonomous vehicles would be ride hailing in major cities. However, General Motors’ Cruise robotaxi company is floundering in the wake of a severe crash. And Alphabet’s Waymo faces opposition to expanding its self-driving car service in California. As a result, self-driving trucks are poised to become the first large-scale deployment of computer-controlled vehicles on public highways.

The interior of a self-driving truck’s cab is pictured as it navigates a test track in Pittsburgh on Thursday, March 14, 2024. Aurora Innovation Inc., which is based in Pittsburgh, owns the truck. Aurora intends to begin delivering freight on Interstate 45 between Dallas and Houston later this year, using 20 driverless vehicles. AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar.

Safety groups are skeptical of the trucks, warning that with almost little federal supervision, the corporations will be mostly responsible for determining when the semis are safe enough to travel without humans on board. Critics argue that federal authorities, notably the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, adopt a generally passive approach to safety, acting only after a crash occurs. Most states give little regulation.

However, Aurora and other businesses developing the systems claim that years of testing have shown that their trucks will be safer than human-driven vehicles. They point out that the vehicles’ laser and radar sensors can “see” farther than human eyes can. Human drivers weary, but trucks never do. They are never distracted or hindered by drink or drugs.

“We want to be out there with thousands or tens of thousands of trucks on the road,” said Aurora’s CEO, Chris Urmson, who previously led Google’s autonomous vehicle operations. “To achieve that, we must be safe. This is the only way the people will accept it. Frankly, that is the only way our clients will accept it.”

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Phil Koopman, a Carnegie Mellon University professor who studies vehicle automation safety, agreed that self-driving trucks are potentially safer than human-driven trucks since they do not have drivers who could become distracted or drunk. However, he warned that the vehicles’ computers will inevitably make blunders. He also stated that the quality of the vehicles’ safety engineering will determine how well they perform in real-world conditions.

With billions of dollars at stake, Koopman worries how the firms will strike a compromise between safety and cost.

“Everything I see indicates they’re trying to do the right thing,” he went on to say. “But the devil is in the details.”

On the test track, reporters observed Aurora’s semis avoiding road impediments such as pedestrians, a blown tire, and even a horse. However, the vehicles were only traveling at 35 mph (56 km/h) in a controlled area, and nothing unexpected occurred. (The trucks are being tested alongside human safety drivers on Texas roadways at speeds of 65 mph (105 kph) or higher.)

On the course, the vehicles recognized impediments more than a quarter-mile away and moved quickly to avoid them. Urmson claims the vehicles’ laser sensors can identify individuals strolling on a roadway at night, far beyond the range of headlights.

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A self-driving tractor trailer navigates a test track in Pittsburgh on Thursday, March 14, 2024. Aurora Innovation Inc. of Pittsburgh owns the truck, which is loaded with 25 laser, radar, and video sensors. Aurora intends to begin delivering freight on Interstate 45 between Dallas and Houston later this year, using 20 driverless vehicles. AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar.

Since 2021, Aurora trucks have driven over 1 million miles automatically on public roadways, although with human safety drivers in the cabs. According to Urmson, there have only been three crashes, all of which were caused by human error in other cars.

According to a federal database that began in June 2021, there have been at least 13 crashes involving autonomous semis, three of which involved Aurora. All of the crashes were caused by other vehicles changing lanes or rear-ending the trucks. Sometimes human safety drivers took over just before a crash.

Aurora will not sacrifice safety, according to Urmson, even if doing so may cause a delay in achieving profitability.

“If we put a vehicle on the road that isn’t sufficiently safe—that we aren’t confident in the safety of—then it kills everything else,” he went on to say.

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When Urmson showed the trucks to Wall Street analysts in Pittsburgh last month, he stated that the publicly traded company aims to be profitable by late 2027 or early 2028. To reach that aim, Aurora must successfully put thousands of vehicles on the road, transporting freight from terminal to terminal and charging customers per mile.

The company’s competitors, including Plus.ai, Gatik, and Kodiak Robotics, intend to put driverless trucks on the road soon to transport freight for customers. Gatik expects it to happen this year or next; the others haven’t established a timeline.

Don Burnette, CEO of Kodiak, stated that roads offer a better habitat for autonomous cars than congested areas where ride-hailing robotaxis have been operating. There are fewer pedestrians, therefore fewer unexpected events occur. Still, there are faster speeds and longer braking distances.

Burnette stated that in highway testing with human backup drivers, Kodiak has never had an incident in which one of its trucks was at fault.

“At the end of the day,” says Burnette, “these trucks should be much safer than human drivers.”

Almost every year in the United States, a tractor-trailer plows into stalled traffic due to road work, often resulting in fatalities and injuries. According to Burnette, autonomous trucks pay attention at all times and are constantly watching 360 degrees.

Maybe so. However, at a Buc-ee’s giant convenience store and gas station on Interstate 45 approximately 35 miles south of Dallas, the possibility of driverless semis sparked dread.

“It sounds like a disaster waiting to happen,” said Kent Franz, a high school basketball coach from Chandler, Oklahoma, who was headed to Houston for a wedding. “I’ve heard of driverless cars—Tesla, what have you—and the accidents they’ve had. Eighteen-wheelers? Something that heavy, based on technology that has shown to be faulty? “That doesn’t sound very comfortable to me.”

Patti Pierce, a retired accountant from Plano, Texas, said she would be comfortable with the technology in roughly a decade.

“I don’t want to be on the road with them right now,” she told me. “I like the gadgets in my car, but I’m not sure the technology is good enough right now to have a truck that drives itself.”

According to Carnegie Mellon’s Koopman, there are no federal regulations that particularly address autonomous vehicles. Most states do not have such regulations, either. Koopman claims that the automated-vehicle business has persuaded numerous states to prohibit local governments from establishing such laws. As a result, he stated that the public must trust the corporations that are deploying self-driving trucks.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, both part of the federal Department of Transportation, lack the jurisdiction to prohibit autonomous vehicles from operating on public highways. If something goes wrong, they can issue recalls or take trucks out of service.

A self-driving tractor trailer is showcased at a test track in Pittsburgh on Thursday, March 14, 2024. Aurora Innovation Inc. of Pittsburgh owns the truck, which is loaded with 25 laser, radar, and video sensors. Aurora intends to begin delivering freight on Interstate 45 between Dallas and Houston later this year, using 20 driverless vehicles. AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar.
“You can’t expect the government to protect you here,” Koopman told the crowd. “The company’s going to decide when they think they’re safe, and the only thing the regulator is going to do is judge them after the fact.”

For the past five years, the Motor Carrier Administration has been developing safety guidelines for vehicles equipped with automated driving systems. The regulations will control truck inspections, maintenance, and remote monitoring. However, it is uncertain when the guidelines will emerge from the regulatory procedure.

Meanwhile, the autonomous semi-truck businesses claim they can assist address a truck driver shortfall estimated by the industry at 64,000. However, there are concerns that autonomous trucks would eventually replace human drivers, costing people their jobs.

The Teamsters union, which represents over 600,000 members, the majority of whom are truck drivers, is urging state legislators to require human drivers to monitor self-driving systems, claiming that they are risky. According to a 2021 Transportation Department study, fully automated semis will not be used nationwide for some years, providing drivers time to shift to alternative transportation and logistics professions that will be developed.

Aurora’s Urmson believes driverless semis will supplement the labor presently done by human drivers, as more items will need to be moved to accommodate a growing population.

“If you’re driving a truck today,” he went on to say, “my expectation is you’re going to be able to retire driving a truck.”