A new autonomous commercial trucking pilot is in the works at the hands of FedEx Corp., Paccar Inc., and Aurora Innovation Inc.
A self driving tech-equipped Paccar tractor hauling FedEx loads between Dallas and Houston has been the initial journey of the pilot–making for a 500-mile round trip interstate drive. Now, the testing program will continue with self-driving efforts, although a safety driver will remain in the cab for the time being in case a takeover is needed.
Still, Aurora Innovation claims that its primary autonomous driving system, Aurora Driver, will not need backup drivers in the cab for much longer.
“At the end of 2021, we will launch our trucking business and haul loads autonomously between terminals without a safety driver,” said the company. “Developing our trucking service and driver-as-a-service business model alongside a trusted network that understands how to safely optimize logistics through efficiency and speed primes us to build a more deeply integrated service with the Aurora Driver for fleets safely and quickly.”
Earlier this year, Paccar and Aurora decided to collaborate on the development of two autonomous Class 8 trucks–new models of the already-popular Kenworth T680 and Peterbilt 579.
“The speed and quality of progress we’re making with Aurora to develop self-driving trucks is impressive,” said chief technology officer for Paccar, John Rich. “This industry collaboration is an important step toward delivering these trucks at scale.”
Autonomous trucking is the next step in addressing “the exponential growth of e-commerce,” added FedEx Corp., which believes this pilot initiative will be a monumental step forward for the companies in their efforts to look toward the future of technology in the industry.
“This is an exciting, industry-first collaboration that will work toward enhancing the logistics industry through safer, more efficient transportation of goods and we are pleased to collaborate with other industry leaders–Aurora and Paccar–on this endeavor,” said FedEx Corp.’s vice president of advanced technology and innovation, Rebecca Yeung.
Autonomous driving is clearly progressing steadily, added automotive and smart mobility analyst at Gartner Inc., Mike Ramsey. This program will help demonstrate that progression to the public.
“It’s exciting to see the new pilots being announced, but I expect we are still a few years away from taking people out of the seat,” he said. “The stakes are high, with 80,000-pound vehicles going 60 mph. The regulations between different states are uneven, and clarity about legality and safety will need to be codified in some way.”
Logistics companies will continue operating and owning the vehicles, but Ramsey predicts that companies will provide their own automated driver tech and software as the business model for autonomous trucking solidifies.
“You can imagine buying a truck fitted with a Via or Aurora driver, and the logistics firms or big consumer goods fleets will pay Aurora or Via to make sure the software and hardware are working on the truck,” he explained.
The collaborative effort of these companies allows for autonomous driving to be tested with groups operating at scale, added co-founder and chief product officer at Aurora, Sterling Anderson. Deployment capabilities will also be boosted with FedEx bringing its logistics knowledge, as well.
Now, industry powerhouses like American Trucking Associations are calling for federal autonomous trucking guidelines–specifically, for Secretary Pete Buttigieg to set forth a development and deployment framework for automated vehicle operation throughout the United States.
“ATA believes there is great promise in automated vehicle technology to improve highway safety, the efficiency of our supply chain, and our environment,” said ATA President, Chris Spear. “But, we need a national framework that fosters innovation, not a patchwork of potentially conflicting state and federal regulations, to deliver on that promise.”
ATA, along with other stakeholder groups, requested said framework in a letter written to Buttigieg last month.
“Implementing a federal AV framework that fosters the safe deployment of AVs,” the groups wrote, “can help the Biden administration to shepherd in a safer, more environmentally friendly and accessible transportation future.”