A giant 18-wheeled transport truck drives down a multi-lane highway in Texas, and there’s no one behind the wheel.
The futuristic idea may seem surreal, but it’s being tested in this vast southern US state, which has become the epicenter of a booming autonomous vehicle industry.
However, before driverless trucks are allowed on roads and highways, several tests still need to be carried out to ensure that they are safe.
Autonomous trucks are piloted using radars, laser scanners, cameras and GPS antennas that communicate with piloting software.
“Each time we drive a mile or a kilometer in real life, we re-simulate a thousand more times on the computer by changing hundreds of parameters,” explains Pierre-François Le Faou, partner development manager. trucking at Waymo, the self-driving company. unit of Google’s parent company, Alphabet.
Waymo is building a logistics center in Dallas that will house hundreds of self-driving tractor-trailers.
And it is by far not the only one. Embark, an autonomous tech startup, operates an autonomous trucking route between Houston and San Antonio, while Aurora, co-founded by a former Waymo employee, will open three terminals and a new 635-mile (1,000 kilometer) road in Texas this year.
A sign of the competitiveness of the autonomous trucking industry, none of the three companies agreed to show AFP one of their vehicles.
– Friendly legislation –
“I think everyone who works in the autonomous trucking business is in Texas,” says Srikanth Saripalli, director of the Center for Autonomous Vehicles and Sensor Systems at Texas A&M University. “Even if they don’t advertise it.”
Companies did not land in Texas by chance. The state has the most truckers and many skilled engineers, its sunny climate is ideal for truck sensors, and neighboring Mexico exports 85% of its goods to Texas by road.
Houston and Dallas are major freight hubs, and Texas’ vast distances are ideal for long-haul transportation.
But above all, local legislation is favorable to driverless vehicles.
In 2018, Texas passed a law that essentially gave self-driving cars the same status as conventional vehicles.
“You need insurance and you have to follow traffic laws, but other than that Texas doesn’t have any other regulations,” Saripalli says.
With the United States being so vast and trucking such a vital part of its economy, companies are looking to self-driving as a way to reduce costs and risk because unlike human drivers, self-driving vehicles do not tire and do not require mandatory breaks. .
While it will take a person three days to drive a truck from Los Angeles to Dallas, a large self-driving truck will complete the trip in 24 hours, Aurora estimates.
And it will be almost twice as expensive. The cost per mile would drop from $1.76 to $0.96 if the truck drove itself, according to Embark.
– Jobs at risk –
Alex Rodrigues, CEO and co-founder of Embark Technology, insists that self-driving trucks will be crucial in addressing the current shortage of long-haul truck drivers in the United States, some of whom do not want to move away from their family for weeks at a time.
“Right now there are containers in the Port of Los Angeles that are not being moved,” he says.
And Rodrigues promises that the self-driving truck industry will create “attractive” jobs for local drivers, who will pick up self-driving trucks at transfer points and drive them to their final destination points.
Yet 294,000 trucking jobs would be at risk from automating the industry, according to a 2018 study led by Steve Viscelli, a sociologist at the University of California at Berkeley.
For Julio Moscoso, a 56-year-old driver in Texas, the arrival of driverless trucks is “not good news”.
He says that while there are plenty of trucking jobs available right now, that hasn’t always been the case. He recalls a period over the past two years when “there wasn’t as much work”.
Most importantly, Moscoso says he wouldn’t trust driverless trucks.
“It’s dangerous. What happens if the sensors fail?” he asks.
At the same time, he admits that he no longer wants to make long journeys, and finds it uncomfortable to sleep in his cabin and not to be able to shower every day.