A new report from The Washington Post revealed that the company Aurora Innovation has been testing their autonomous self-driving semitrucks on American highways, before their expected launch at the end of this year in Texas. But there are concerns that these semitrucks are advancing faster than federal regulations and the risks they pose to current truck drivers.

What are autonomous ‘self-driving’ trucks?

In a research guide from the Library of Congress, autonomous (self-driving) trucks are defined as “trucks that will be controlled from other sources such as satellites and advanced GPS” and fall on a spectrum of human-robot interactions. In trucks that are fully autonomous, semitrucks would need little to no human interaction to fulfill its mission.

The Washington Post details how Aurora’s self-driving trucks are currently being trained by real truck drivers.

AJ Jenkins, a former semitruck driver for FedEx, sat in the driver seat of a self-driving Aurora semi but never touched the steering wheel. According to The Washington Post, the only time he would need to take control of the wheel was if anything went wrong. He is acting as a backup safety driver, which according to Axios is how most autonomous truck developers test their vehicles before it can go solo.

Self-driving trucks, created by the company Kodiak, have sensors that conduct about 1,000 checks of the truck’s surrounding environment every 100 milliseconds so that the truck can adjust itself accordingly in real time, according to Axios. Kodiak has command centers that watch over their self-driving trucks and give them the ability to remotely take over a truck’s driving function if needed.

What are the current regulations for self-driving semitrucks?

According to The Washington Post, “driverless passenger vehicles and trucks can ride anywhere in the United States, unless a state explicitly says they can’t. That means companies can test and operate their vehicles across most of the country.”

They detail the standing of most state regulations when it comes to self-driving vehicles that was provided by Aurora:

  • Twenty-four states allow driverless vehicles to operate.
  • Sixteen states do not have specific regulations concerning self-driving vehicles.
  • Ten states have regulations limiting the actions of self-driving vehicles.

Several labor and safety advocates have tried convince legislations to ban self-driving trucks, but haven’t been successful, per The Washington Post. In the past, self-driving vehicles have gotten into crashes.

The Verge reports that public opinion toward autonomous vehicles has seen a downward trend, citing a survey from Forbes that stated 68% of Americans were afraid of self-driving cars in 2023.

The White House is currently reviewing a proposal for safety guardrails on autonomous trucks, The Washington Post reports, which has been in the works for more than five years as a collaboration between the Transportation Department, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

Are truck drivers at risk of losing their jobs?

Some truck drivers are concerned about this new technology. Truck driver Richard Gaskill told The Washington Post, “It’s too new for me to trust. I don’t like the idea of these being out there taking our jobs.”

He also shared how he couldn’t imagine a robot navigating “the nation’s chaotic highways better than he can.”

According to the Library of Congress, there is a shortage of truck drivers that can meet the industry’s demands, so new truck drivers are being offered incentives such as bonuses, college tuition and lower age requirements; but they believe that the introduction of self-driving trucks could help the industry retain their current truck drivers.

One of the main reasons that truck drivers leave the industry is the high amounts of time they have to stay away from home, per the Library of Congress, so introducing self-driving trucks could take over long-haul routes, increasing the time truck drivers can spend at home.

According to The Washington Post, there are some positive benefits that could come from self-driving semitrucks, including a lower projection of layoffs in the truck driver business, new job opportunities for technicians and dispatchers, along with faster transportation times for goods.

Why are they showing up on Texas roads?

According to Axios, Texas released a law in 2017 that allows autonomous vehicles to operate without a human driver present, making it a prime spot for companies to test out their self-driving vehicles. Multiple companies, such as Aurora and Kodiak, are planning on launching their own driverless routes between Dallas and Houston.

But Texas has also been developing a highway that will only be used by self-driving vehicles. Bloomberg reports that Texas State Highway 130 is being called a smart roadway due to the sensors that will collect data such as traffic, weather and road conditions.

While the highway is still under construction, Texas law requires all autonomous vehicles to comply with current traffic laws and be equipped with video recording devices.

Marc Williams, the executive director of the Texas Department of Transportation, shared that Texas has “a good relationship with the companies testing on its roads. The state has been at the ‘forefront’ of supporting the industry,” per The Washington Post.

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