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Why do driverless trucks love I-45?

For a combination of reasons.

Texas, particularly the stretch of highway between Houston and Dallas, has emerged as one of the nation’s main proving grounds for autonomous trucking, with freight trucks driving themselves from pickup destinations to shipping warehouses hundreds of miles away. It’s a part of what transportation experts say will be an automated vehicle revolution, with passenger cars, local delivery vehicles and freight trucks driving themselves around towns and across states.

Since late 2020, 18-wheelers operated by software and hardware created by Aurora have driven tons of freight from the Dallas area to Houston, often without the intervention of a human driver. The company partnered with FedEx in September to affix its hardware to some of the shipping giant’s Paccar trucks for its first real-world test of its autonomous trucking systems.

And in November, Waymo, owned by Google parent Alphabet, announced its trucking division would partner with UPS to begin testing autonomous big rigs along the same stretch of I-45. The company has already tested its technology along most of the journey, but the deal with UPS is its first public partnership with a freight company.

Officials with Aurora and Waymo say the combination of stable weather along the stretch, a relatively flat drive and the amount of freight driven between the two population hubs made the interstate a good choice. Statewide regulations about driverless vehicles also help, said Pablo Abad, a product manager with Waymo.

“Whenever we go to a particular market or think about implementing the Waymo driver, we have to look at the regulations to see how favorably they view autonomous tech,” he said. “Texas has been very helpful on that side — it’s part of the reason why we’re commercializing in Texas.”

The state’s autonomous-friendly business environment is by design, said Kara Kockelman, a professor of transportation engineering at UT Austin. The Texas Legislature passed a law in 2017 allowing autonomous vehicles to drive in the state without a driver present, and that same year, the entire state was designated by the U.S. Department of Transportation as one of 10 proving grounds for autonomous vehicle testing.

“Texas wants to be on the lead on this,” she said. “Texas has a lot of crossroads for a state, with at least five or six major population centers. That’s a great set up for moving freight.”

Whether by accident or design, it’s working. There have been multiple trials of driverless trucks in Texas over the past few years, mostly on I-45. It’s the same combination of moderate distance, flatness, relative emptiness, and big population centers on either end that was attractive for high speed rail, too. There’s some interesting stuff in the story about the different kinds of automated vehicles and how the addition of driverless trucks could be good both for business and for truck drivers, especially in this time of supply chain issues, so go read the rest.

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5 Comments

  1. David Fagan says:

    The waiting game +day 1

  2. Jules says:

    The only thing that made Houston – Dallas attractive for high speed rail is the backers who thought (or at least trued to make others think) that there are 28 million individuals driving alone between Houston and Dallas every year.

    Without the ridership Texas Central claims, none of the environmental benefits happen, and hsr instead becomes a huge environmental disaster.

  3. C.L. says:

    Snoozing both of you.

  4. Jules says:

    Oh, CL, I will miss your insightful and pertinent comments. Or at least that one time you made a real contribution. Hahaha! Kidding! That never happened.

  5. Jules says:

    Great news! The state of Texas sides with Miles v Texas HSR that Texas Central does not have eminent domain in an amicus brief to SCOTX.

    “ The State takes no position on the wisdom or utility of building a high-speed train between Dallas and Houston. But private actors who seek to seize private prop-erty using eminent-domain powers must strictly comply with statutory and constitu-tional conditions governing the use of such powers. Respondents have not.

    In the State’s view, Respondents failed to demonstrate that they are either “rail-road company[ies]” or “interurban electric railway compan[ies]” authorized to ex-ercise eminent domain under the Transportation Code. The first category refers to currently operating railroad companies seeking to expand their routes. But Respond-ents are not operating anything resembling a railroad. That they might possibly do so someday is not enough. The second category refers to small, localized, electric rail-ways that are designed to transport passengers between a city and its surrounding areas. Respondents’ proposed multi-billion dollar, cross-state, high-speed train does not fit the bill.

    Respondents also cannot satisfy constitutional constraints requiring private ac-tors to demonstrate a “reasonable probability” that they will complete their public-use project. Simply put, the Respondents failed to establish a likelihood that they will ever succeed in raising the substantial capital required to complete their high-speed train, let alone that such a train will one day actually operate and serve the public interest. This Court should accordingly reverse and render judgment for Miles.”