Aurora Innovation has christened the nation’s first commercial autonomous freight route between Dallas and Houston. But its timing could have been better.
“With this corridor’s launch, we’ve defined, refined, and validated the framework for the expansion of our network with the largest partner ecosystem in the autonomous trucking industry,” Sterling Anderson, an Aurora co-founder and chief product officer, said in a news release.
The choice of the Interstate 45 route was expected. Aurora has created autonomous terminals to launch and land driverless trucks in Palmer, Texas, located south of Dallas, and in Houston.
The announcement comes after robotaxi maker Cruise Automation last Friday suspended operations in Austin, Texas, because of complaints about traffic delays caused by the intentionally cautious driverless cars. On Oct. 24, California suspended Cruise’s autonomous vehicle deployment and driverless testing permits after accidents and traffic tie-ups in San Francisco.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom in September vetoed a Teamsters-backed bill that would have effectively banned heavy-duty autonomous trucking. California still requires safety drivers to monitor autonomous functions. Most companies pursued commercial trucking software and hardware testing and pilot operations in autonomy-friendly Texas.
The Teamsters continue to protest against autonomous cars in California while stepping up anti-autonomy protests in Texas.
“Lawmakers in Austin should recognize that their voters do not want to be on the road with driverless cars or trucks,” Brent Taylor, Teamsters Southern Region vice president and secretary-treasurer of Local 745, said in a letter to Texas legislators. “We call on the legislature to seize the opportunity to pass a bill requiring human operators in all commercial vehicles.”
The compoany declined to comment on the Cruise suspension or the Teamsters.
Aurora pushes toward driver-out in 2024
Aurora is the first to name the freight-dense corridor for hub-to-hub operations ahead of planned driver-out commercial freight runs on I-45 as soon as late 2024. It currently operates 75 autonomous runs a week with safety drivers. Terminals for launching and landing autonomous trucks are up and running in the two hubs.
Rival Kodiak Robotics also has terminal operations in Texas. Both Aurora and Kodiak foresee more lucrative longer routes — from Fort Worth to El Paso for Aurora and Houston to Atlanta for Kodiak.
Aurora’s commercial-ready terminals house, maintain, prepare, inspect and deploy autonomous trucks between destinations. Its terminal blueprint maximizes the time autonomous freight-hauling trucks are on the road.
For example, on-site weigh stations ensure Aurora’s trucks comply with regulatory standards while allowing them to bypass on-road inspection sites. That results in a more efficient trip with fewer stops. Human drivers bring trailers of freight to one of the hubs where other human drivers pick up the loads for delivery to distribution centers or other final destinations.
“Bringing our commercial-ready terminals and services online a year ahead of our planned commercial driverless launch between Dallas and Houston enables us to focus next year on integrating our driver-ready trucks into our customer’s operations,” Anderson said.
Aurora is also preparing its command center to support around-the-clock commercial operations. Remote specialists monitor and provide guidance to Aurora-powered trucks. Dispatchers allocate trucks, trailers and vehicle operators to missions.
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