Special Reports

SPECIAL REPORT: Self-driving semi trucks tested on I-10 in El Paso

Selfdriving semis testdrive El Paso...

EL PASO, Texas - Three companies are revolutionizing the trucking industry by engineering self-driving trucks and the Sun City is a launch pad for autonomous trucks heading to the West Coast.  

"Embark, Electrolux and Ryder are working together running the longest automated freight in the world today, running from Texas to California," Embark CEO Alex Rodrigues said.

The trucks are loaded with refrigerators at a northeast El Paso plant and then drive more than 600 miles to their destination in California. 

"Our automation is designed specifically for the highway. We rely on riders, trucks and drivers to ferry the freight between the warehouse and the interstate," Rodrigues said. 

A video on Embark's website shows drivers are in control as the trucks travel through congested parts of the city. During the testing phase, the cargo is then hitched onto a high-tech cabin, and while the driver is still onboard, the automation technology takes over.

"We think that safety is important to everything we are doing and we don't want to take any risks," Rodrigues said. 

Although testing is already underway, there are a lot of kinks that need to be worked out. Those who study the industry say people will stay in the driver's seat for years to come. 

"When you start mixing the fully automated vehicles with human-driven vehicles, there are a lot of challenges, and when you put those vehicles on the roads with a lot of different objects that need to be detected," said Mike Lukuc, the Program Managerprogram manager for the Transportation Operations Group at Texas A&M University. 

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Analysts say the pros of autonomous trucks outweigh the cons. "The advantages are easier to picture from an operations standpoint," Lukuc said. "Driver availability and retention is a big issue for them." 

Royal Jones, the CEO and president of Mesilla Valley Transportation, agrees. "I think we can end the driver shortage if we can allow the driver to go off duty when the computer is driving the truck," he said. 

Jones oversees 1,350 trucks and says self-driving semis will make commuting safer for they typical driver. "Computers don't get distracted. Computers don't text. Computers don't have to stop and gawk at everything on the freeway. So traffic gets better," Jones said.

Analysts say better technology can lead to an expanded workforce. "There is belief that as the machines become more intelligent and dodoes more of the driving task, - the the driver can, all of a sudden, do other things and other responsibilities, and the job description becomes more attractive to younger folks," Lukuc said. 

But before computers can take over the roads, there still are more hurdles on the horizon, which includes regulations. "How does the department of transportation in any state or U.S. Department of Transportation manage these operations safely with traffic and the evolution of technology," Lukuc asked.

Ready or not, the technology is coming. "I can't not think that it's not coming. Interview me in 10 years and we will be a lot more down the road," said Jones.


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