The long and desolate stretch of Interstate ten between Texas and California is now being used as a test track for autonomous trucks, News Radio 1200 WOAI has learned.
A San Francisco-based company called Embark Trucking has teamed up with Ryder and Frigidaire to move refrigerators from an El Paso warehouse to a distribution center in Palm Springs, California via self-driving 18-wheelers.
CEO Alex Rodrigues says it solves the trucking industry's workforce shortage.
"More than 50 percent of all drivers will retire in the next two decades and there aren’t nearly enough young drivers joining the industry to replace them. By allowing automation to work together with local drivers to handle less desirable long haul routes, we will be able to increase productivity to address the current 50,000 driver shortage while also creating new local driving jobs that attract younger drivers for the industry."
A professional driver pilots the truck to the highway, where the self-driving truck takes over. Once it gets to California, a switch back is made, allowing the driver to merely play chauffeur during the most tedious stretch of highway.
During October, the Embark truck traveled 306 consecutive miles in automated mode, with the driver only taking over control for a mandatory stop at a port of entry.
And while this is a step towards what many think is the future of trucking, experts at the Texas Transportation Institute see it as a small one. Mike Lukuc, a researcher in connected and automated transportation, says Embark is merely using what is already in the marketplace.
"I don’t know if people realize, but currently, there are production systems that have been in the market for a while that have longitudinal following capability, adaptive cruise control. It's basically radar and camera based system that allows the driver to set the speed and it will adjust downward if a car cuts in front."
Level two, he says, adds steering on top of that. The big jump will be a way to get trucks off the highways and into urban settings without a driver or a lead truck to follow.
But, he says this test from Embark will help shape public opinion about automated trucking"It will open some eyes," he explains. "The more miles they go without an accident will only help."