HOUSTON – The future of trucking is now, as autonomous semi-trucks are rolling down Texas highways every day.
Kodiak Robotics, one of the companies leading the way in the driverless trucking industry, said the goal is fuel efficiency and safer roads.
“Autonomous trucks don’t text. They don’t drive drowsy. They don’t drive distracted,” said Jordan Coleman, Kodiak’s vice president of policy. “They are always focused on the road and they are always prioritizing safety first. They’re not trying to get home for a family dinner or a Friday night football game. They are focused on safety, always, first and foremost.”
Kodiak Robotics is one of a handful of companies to test in Texas since legislation allowing automated driving systems passed in 2017. It has daily runs from the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex to Houston.
Driving the future
In January, self-driving tech company Waymo announced its fleet of Chrysler Pacifica vehicles and long-haul trucks equipped with sensors were hitting Texas highways to begin mapping Interstates 10, 20, and 45, with future plans for self-driving semis.
But, would you trust a self-driving semi next to you on a highway? We talked to a couple of Houstonians to find out if they’re ready for this wave of the future.
Taylor Grimes said, “As of right now, I would not feel comfortable, but I think the technology is definitely going to be there.”
But, Jake Derrick said he regularly listens to podcasts on the topic and looked forward to learning more.
“I’m very interested in it. I don’t see it in the very near future but in the foreseeable future but it could definitely happen. It could be safer than actual people driving,” Derrick said.
Driving for a safer road
In fact, Coleman said Kodiak’s system was developed with the safety of other drivers in mind.
“We have built our system to effectively mimic defensive driving,” he said, “It’s going to slow down. It’s going to keep a safe following distance and it’s always going to prioritize safety first, and never speed and never focus on moving down the road but instead being safe around the drivers surrounding it.”
Though the trucks are autonomous, for now, each has a CDL safety driver behind the wheel, and what the company calls a “right-seat operator” to focus on the system.
Coleman said the autonomous technology is a game-changer for the trucking industry.
“My trucks don't care if it's three in the morning or three in the afternoon. So, they're going to be able to avoid rush hour, which will make roads less congested and make for a better driving environment for everyone around.”
Too much too soon?
Brian Fielkow, CEO of Jetco Delivery, doesn't think we're ready for driverless trucks on the roads.
“When it comes to no human being in the truck, I’m skeptical because even though the technology may be heading in that direction, neither society nor the infrastructure is ready,” Fielkow said.
He compares it to passengers riding an airplane.
“Let’s use flying as an example. Would you get on an airplane with no pilot in the cockpit? I don’t think so. Even though we know that that plane does a lot of the flying by itself, you need that human being to take control for unforeseen circumstances I see a very similar situation happening with trucks,” Fielkow said.
He said he is excited about the innovation that autonomy will bring to the industry, but still thinks we’re a long way off from completely driverless trucks.
“I think the conversation around truly driverless trucks is taking up too much oxygen. My fear is that a young person considering the great profession of truck driving may say, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m not gonna do that because in 10 years it will be obsolete.’ I would tell that person not to worry, we’re gonna need you,” Fielkow said.
TIMELINE FOR FULLY AUTONOMOUS SEMI TRUCKS?
For now, neither Kodiak nor Waymo will disclose exactly when or where their vehicles are on the interstates, or when they plan to roll out an autonomous fleet with no safety driver behind the wheel.
However, whether it’s with or without a driver, Coleman said Kodiak did make sure to keep one thing in place when it comes to the experience of riding next to a long-haul truck on the highway.
“One of the first things, when I joined this company, was to talk to the engineering team and to make sure on the engineering roadmap we had a way to be able to honk the horn when kids and other motorists made the universal signal asking us to do so,” Coleman said.