Trucking Companies Join Forces to Test Self-Driving Trucks from Houston to Fort Worth

Trucking has long been an integral part of the American economy. The U.S. Census stated in 2019 that more than 3.5 million people were employed as truck drivers nationwide, making it one of the most popular professions in the country, and the American Trucking Association estimated that registered trucks traveled roughly 304.9 billion miles per year. In Texas alone, there are over 185,000 truck drivers transporting 73% of the state’s products. But one new enterprise could change the trucking sector forever: trucking giant J.B. Hunt is beginning a partnership with self-driving technology pioneer Waymo to introduce self-driving trucks to Houston Texas roads.

About the Companies

J.B. Hunt is a transportation and shipping company with over 12,000 trucks and 100,000 trailers within its fleet. Founded in Arkansas in 1961, J.B. Hunt has since grown into the third largest trucking company in the United States.

Waymo is an autonomous driving technology development company. In 2009, Waymo began as a Google self-driving car project. Since then, they’ve pioneered new autonomous driving technology, operating self-driving taxis and maintaining themselves as the only company to offer a self-driving vehicle service that does not require a backup safety driver in the vehicle.

The Rise of Self-Driving Technology

Waymo has been testing autonomous vehicles for over ten years, first spending years testing on private courses and then eventually moving to public roads. As of January of last year, the company has logged over 20 million miles of driving on public roads, as well as tens of billions of miles via computer simulations.

However, it’s only as of late that they began testing self-driving trucks. Waymo launched their self-driving trucking division, dubbed “Waymo Via,” in March 2020, and began testing autonomous trucks and commercial motor vehicles on closed courses in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California that summer. On their site, they tout their self-driving vehicles as capable of handling complex situations such as acceleration, deacceleration, and wide turns.

A company spokesperson from Waymo said that the company has been using VR technology that can simulate real roads and highways in order to test-drive trucks and evaluate their self-driving technology on closed courses, but that they want to take that learning to progress to “fully autonomous operations.”

The Beginnings of Autonomous Vehicles in Texas

Waymo first expanded their autonomous vehicle testing efforts to Texas in 2015, taking advantage of the state’s lack of laws prohibiting cars without a steering wheel and pedals. In 2017, they began developing autonomous truck-driving technology with Class 8 vehicles. Class 8 Vehicles, considered “severe duty,” can include big rigs, cement trucks, and dump trucks. While the company had already been utilizing fully autonomous cars for its ride-share service in Arizona, they have yet to apply it to commercial motor vehicles outside of testing situations.

However, that is soon set to change. The company is teaming up with J.B. Hunt to run larger-scale autonomous driving tests, putting self-driving trucks and 18-wheelers onto public roads in Houston and other Texas cities. The freight run test-drives will go between Fort Worth and Houston, on I-45. Though the semis will be equipped with Waymo’s autonomous driving technology, a driver will still man the trucks during these test runs.

Critics and Advocates for Self-Driving Trucks in Houston

Critics argue that despite the use of a backup driver, autonomous trucks’ systems lack the sophistication of the human brain, and may not be able to decipher or maneuver through road hazards and other unusual situations, which could cause a truck accident. However, in the tests run by J.B. Hunt and Waymo, commercially-licensed drivers have been able to take over the vehicle from the cockpit as well as remotely, helping to supplement the autonomous technology with the human element when deemed necessary.

In addition, Waymo has introduced technology to account for vehicular issues and failures. In their  Safety Report, they state that the vehicles are equipped with backup systems set to take over in case the main computer fails. In addition, they have also implemented “critical safety systems and fault protection,” which force the vehicle to come to a stop if the system detects a technological or machinal failure in order to prevent accidents.

Advocates for the autonomous trucking movement also state that in addition to the benefit of a complex combination of lidar, radar, cameras, inertial measurement, and supplemental sensors, self-driving trucks are a safer option because unlike people, an autonomous vehicle does not feel tired, get distracted, or experience road rage, and can more easily travel during non-peak driving hours. They also argue that self-driving trucks are more efficient than a human driver who needs to stop to eat and rest, which could serve as the key to mitigating the parking issues truckers face when off-duty.

Supporters of the autonomous trucking industry also see it as a solution to the shortage of truck drivers the nation is currently facing. The trucking industry is struggling to attract new talent to replace aging drivers due to the long hours, poor pay, excessive time away from home, and lack of work/life balance that local blue collar jobs offer. In addition, many companies are looking for drivers with experience, which narrows the applicant pool to exclude new drivers. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated these issues, with the restructuring and closure of small businesses limiting opportunities within the trucking sector. Proponents of self-driving trucks argue that cutting out the human element could solve this problem entirely.

Despite criticism from truck drivers and others in the trucking sector, Waymo and J.B. Hunt are confident in their vehicles’ ability to safely transport goods on public freeways, without endangering everyday drivers. Although there are no exact timelines on when Houston can expect autonomous trucks to become the majority, one thing is for certain: self-driving trucks will revolutionize the trucking industry, and these two companies are paving the way.

If you or a loved one has been injured in a truck accident, you should contact a Truck Accident Lawyer right away to get an understanding of your rights. Our dedicated Truck Accident lawyers have been representing injured people and their families for over 25 years, and we can fight for you too. Give us a call at 713-224-9000, or fill out our contact form here.