Look Ma, No Driver | God's World News

Look Ma, No Driver

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    An Aurora Innovation self-driving tractor-trailer maneuvers around a test track in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (AP/Gene J. Puskar)
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    A worker sits in the passenger seat of the truck cab for testing, but the vehicle is driving itself. (AP/Gene J. Puskar)
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    The truck is outfitted with 25 laser, radar, and camera sensors. (AP/Gene J. Puskar)
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    Since 2021, Aurora trucks have already autonomously hauled freight over one million miles on U.S. highways—but with human backup drivers in the cabs. (AP/Gene J. Puskar)
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    In testing, reporters saw the semis avoid pedestrians and even a horse. But the trucks were going only 35 miles per hour in a controlled environment. The trucks are also being tested with human safety drivers on freeways at speeds of 65 or more miles per hour. (AP/Gene J. Puskar)
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An 18-wheel tractor-trailer rounds a curve on a test track near Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. No one is on board. The Aurora Innovation truck’s sensors spot a trash can blocking one lane and a tire in another. In less than a second, the massive vehicle signals, moves into an unobstructed lane, and rumbles past the obstacles.

The self-driving semi features 25 laser, radar, and camera sensors. Soon, trucks like it will be on the road for real. Late this year, Aurora plans for 20 driverless trucks to begin hauling freight between the Dallas and Houston, Texas, areas. The self-driving vehicle technology company chose to start operations in Texas, where snow and ice—which can make roads more dangerous—are rare.

Within three or four years, the company and its competitors expect to put thousands of the vehicles on America’s freeways. The goal is for the trucks to expedite the flow of goods and lower costs because they can run around the clock and drive at consistent speeds.

Safety advocates warn that there’s little federal or state regulation. So it will be mainly up to the companies themselves to determine whether the semis are safe enough to operate without humans on board. The critics complain that federal agencies typically take a passive approach to safety, acting only after crashes occur.

But Aurora and other companies developing the systems assert that years of testing show that their trucks will actually be safer than human-driven ones. The vehicles’ laser and radar sensors can “see” farther than human eyes can. The trucks never tire, as human drivers do. They never become distracted or impaired by alcohol or drugs.

Don Burnette is CEO of Kodiak Robotics, which is also working on autonomous vehicle technology. He says freeways are a better environment for such vehicles than congested cities where companies have tried out robotaxis. There are fewer pedestrians and unexpected situations. Still, on highways, the trucks must handle higher speeds and longer braking distances.

Almost every year in the United States, a tractor-trailer plows into stopped traffic, often causing deaths and injuries. But autonomous trucks pay attention all the time, Burnette says. (That is, as long as all sensors are fully operational.)

Phil Koopman studies vehicle automation safety. He agrees that self-driving trucks can theoretically be safer than human-driven ones—because they lack drivers who might become distracted or impaired. But he cautions that the vehicles’ computers inevitably will make errors. And just how will the trucks fare in the real world? That, he says, will depend on the quality of their safety engineering.

Why? Self-driving vehicles may soon change the way freight is transported, but caution is warranted.

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