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Autonomous Trucks in the Wild West

Thursday, June 30, 2022

Texas, with low restrictions, is the primary location for the growing industry of self-driving trucks. In 2023 at least two companies, Aurora and TuSimple, are aiming to launch fully driverless trucks on public freeways.

Texas isn’t the wild west any longer, but it does have one of the least restrictive legislations governing the testing and development of autonomous vehicles, including trucks. In 2017 the state passed an amendment to its Transportation Code addressing automated motor vehicles. That Act sets the liberal regulatory environment with three key points. First, it specifically allows vehicles that are “capable of operating in compliance with applicable traffic and motor vehicle laws of this state” to operate on public roads. Second, it states that autonomous motor vehicles are allowed to operate “regardless of whether a human operator is physically present in the vehicle.” Third, it prohibits “political subdivisions” or smaller jurisdictions such as cities or counties, from imposing any “other regulation related to the operation of an automated motor vehicle or automated driving system”, which means no areas of the state can impose greater restrictions than those set out in the amendment. 

The lenient regulatory environment in Texas has attracted small companies, such as TuSimple and Gatik, and large organizations such as Waymo, Amazon and Walmart, looking to develop self-driving trucks or work with the companies that are. Texas is a prime location not only because of the open laws, but because of the massive freight industry, expanding metropolitan areas, and its central position geographically. 

There is pushback, however. Ware Wendel, executive director Texas Watch, a consumer advocacy group, says that “rushing this technology to market using regular drivers as beta testers in real-world driving conditions puts potentially everyone at risk.” Currently there are no known accidents caused by an autonomous vehicle in Texas, which also happens to have the unfortunate position of the most fatal trucking accidents in the US. The companies are hoping that autonomous trucks will not only be safe but improve the overall safety of trucking. Safety advocates, like Wendel, worry that the regulative landscape in Texas might be too lenient, potentially leading to unnecessary deaths and less safe roads. The next few years are crucial for determining whether the more lenient approach in Texas is a recipe for success or unreasonable risk.

This tension extends beyond Texas, as an executive at Gatik points out the legislation is used as a blueprint when lobbying other states, some of which have much more stringent rules, like California, or no official regulation at all, like New Mexico or Missouri. Opponents see this as pitting states against each other, whereas proponents see it as a way of creating the needed legislative space for needed development in the industry. Swedish autonomous truck company Einride, which has operations in Texas, has recently announced a partnership with GE to run their cab-less pods on public roads this year. It received permission from the federal agency NHTSA. Einride is an outlier, and needs special permission because of its unusual form, but the NHTSA decision bodes well for autonomous trucking in general. 

Safety is not the only concern. Another concern is the driver shortage. In 2021 the American Trucking Association estimated that there was an 80,000 shortage of drivers, a number that could rise to as much as 160,000 by 2030. Regardless of the contributing factors it is clear that the wider economy and society in the US depends on freight, and an increasing shortage of drivers represents a slow-moving crisis. Successful autonomous trucks could mitigate some of the impact.

Personal Comment:

I want to comment on two areas in connection to autonomous trucking in Texas: potential efficiency gains, and regulatory challenges. These areas are not exhaustive. There are many potential angles, but these are particularly relevant. 

Advocates of autonomy in general, and of autonomous trucking in this case, often point to the significant potential efficiencies the technology can bring about. Above it was pointed out there are expectations of greater safety and reduced costs. Two other potential efficiencies are reduced emissions and congestion. Even if an autonomous long-haul truck isn’t electrified it can operate more continuously, thereby reducing idling time and congestion. Moving goods more efficiently isn’t just good for impatient people, but for the environment and societal health. Reducing pollution is an all-around good. Electric options, like the Einride pod or the coming Tesla semi and many others, may increase these efficiencies even more. 

The Texas example points to at least two interesting aspects of regulation. First, it highlights the need for diverse regulatory frameworks early stages of a new technology. The relationship between innovation and regulation is complex, but one thing seems clear in this case, there is no agreed upon standard for autonomous vehicle regulation. To get to that point, which we must at some point, we need diverse approaches. For example, on an international scale the UN regulation No. 157 is the first attempt at setting out a general regulatory framework around type approval for automated vehicles. These regulatory developments will have to evolve as well, setting the rules of the game for the design, shape, and functionality of these new types of vehicles. The US hasn’t agreed to these laws, and there is no necessity that the UN regulations should be dominant. There is a need for large scale agreement, but not unity across all markets. 

Written by Joshua Bronson,
RISE Mobility & Systems