Small Steps Toward a Big Future
Some still doubt the future of fully autonomous vehicles, citing safety concerns. However, plenty are tackling the challenges from different angles. For example, Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group (acquired by autonomous vehicle startup Aurora Innovation in late 2020) once envisioned autonomous trucks only driving highway miles between transfer hubs. In their vision, humans took over to handle the final miles through densely-populated areas.ii
In fact, Aurora has already started putting the rubber to the road in Texas as part of a pilot program. Their self-driving trucks, which always have two vehicle safety operators on board, are moving freight for Barcel, maker of Takis spicy tortilla chips, between locations in Dallas, Palmer, and Houston.iii The company plans to launch a full autonomous trucking business by the end of 2023.
Kodiak Robotics and Waymo have also been executing projects of their own, using the Southwest to test their self-driving trucks. Rather than pursuing Level 5 autonomy—fully automated driving with no human intervention ever required—the companies are focused on Level 4. Under Level 4 autonomy, the vehicle drives itself only under specific conditions, such as open highway driving. However, under other circumstances, like busy city streets, the driver is required to maneuver the vehicle. Additionally, a driver can always take control of the system as needed.
In other words, self-driving trucks are closer than many think, and Level 4 freight deliveries may soon become more and more common.