Autonomous Trucks: A Tool for the Motor Carrier Toolbox

By Seth Clevenger, Transport Topics

Autonomous trucks could unlock ­safety improvements and greater freight efficiency in the coming years, but it’s clear that this technology will not be a one-size-fits-all solution for the entire trucking industry.

Instead, trucking operations will introduce autonomous vehicles in specific, tailored applications that augment rather than replace their existing fleets and professional drivers.

Industry executives discussed how autonomous trucks could fit into freight transportation networks during a roundtable discussion with trucking journalists at Trimble Transportation’s 2023 Insight Tech Conference and Expo, held Sept. 24-27 in Las Vegas.

“We are building a tool for the industry,” said Walter Grigg, who leads industry partnerships for self-driving truck developer Torc Robotics. “No tool in a carpenter’s tool belt does everything. You don’t spread concrete with a Phillips head screwdriver. We are building what is effectively a Phillips head screwdriver — it has a very specific application, and it is designed to do very well in that application.”

Proponents of autonomous driving technology frequently highlight its potential safety benefits, but unmanned trucks also could help trucking companies expand their fleets by supplementing their current operations with autonomous capacity.

“It’s allowing carriers that embrace the technology to take on more revenue, to take on more freight volume and actually grow,” said Michael Wiesinger, vice president of commercialization at Kodiak Robotics, another self-driving truck developer. “Today it’s very hard to grow because you can’t find the drivers to actually grow your fleet.”

Torc and Kodiak are operating self-driving trucks on the road today with safety drivers behind the wheel, but their goal is to enable unmanned trucks to operate autonomously on longhaul hub-to-hub routes in the years ahead.

From the fleet perspective, deploying autonomous trucks is not a question of “all or none,” said Matt McLelland, vice president of sustainability and innovation at Covenant Logistics, which ranks No. 46 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest for-hire carriers in North America.

“I don’t really see it replacing anything; it’ll just be augmenting what we already have,” he said. “It would allow us to grow the fleet without having to make any dramatic changes.”

McLelland said Covenant is interested in autonomous trucks as a way to expand its expedited fleet as a complement to its team drivers in that division.

“We are cautiously optimistic,” he said. “There are a lot of problems that still have to be figured out, and there are also a lot of reasons to be really optimistic about this. … We are really excited about the potential safety gains that come from this.”

Torc Tackles Beyond-the-Truck Autonomous Issues

By Alan Adler, Freight Waves

How will the “personas” of dispatchers, maintenance technicians and roadside assistance change as autonomous trucks arrive? Torc Robotics is working with major fleets to find out.

Torc differs from its major competitors in preparing to launch fully integrated autonomous Freightliner Cascadias into commerce.

The independent subsidiary of Daimler Truck moves deliberately. Aurora Innovation and Kodiak Robotics target late 2024 for their first commercial routes with driverless trucks. Torc is looking at 2027.

“I have a lot of respect for the other folks in the industry,” Andrew Culhane, Torc chief strategy officer, told me in an interview this week at Torc’s testing center in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “Most of us have been in self-driving together for 15-plus years. Everybody has a different definition of what commercialization really means to them.”

Culhane is an original “Torc’r,” a nickname accorded employees of the company then-graduate student Michael Fleming co-founded at Virginia Tech University in 2005. Fleming stepped down as CEO after 17 years in August 2022 but remains on the Torc board.

The Blacksburg, Virginia-based company became part of Daimler in 2019 when the truck maker acquired a majority stake for an undisclosed amount. The transition from a technology and product emphasis to creating a business began when Daimler installed Peter Vaughan Schmidt as CEO.

‘What is it actually going to take?’

“We go pick up a trailer. We move it from A to B. Sure, we’ve done something, but that’s not true commercialization,” Culhane said. “Over the last 12 months, it’s less of a conversation about the truck itself. Now [it’s] OK, ‘What is it actually going to take to run these assets?’

“There’s plenty of people who can move freight for you,” Culhane said. “It’s a question of ‘Can we enable the fleet to run autonomous trucks?’”

The arrival from Portland, Oregon, of the first fully redundant Cascadia chassis at Torc’s testing center in a former car dealership in Albuquerque addresses part of the question. Seamless duplication of braking, steering, low-voltage power and other key components stand in where a human might take over in case of a failure.

‘10 different big chunks of things’

Culhane focuses on the “10 different big chunks of things” that have to be ironed out before Torc can scale a commercially profitable business.

“How do we move customers from left to right to where they can say, ‘Yeah, I can own that asset, I can run it, I can maintain it, I know how to dispatch it. It plugs into my TMS [transportation management system]. If you don’t answer all of those questions, it’s not commercial-ready. It’s the next great demo or it’s a neat pilot.”

The traditional jobs surrounding freight operations will change. What new skills must a dispatcher acquire? What would roadside assistance look like? Who would supervise driverless trucks to keep them running as intended?

Helping customers take advantage of autonomy

“I think we’ve hit that tipping point of, ‘OK, the serious players are going to get there.’ Now they want to know how they’re going to take advantage of it.”

Torc is in the enviable position of having access to Daimler’s market-leading Freightliner customer base. Two of those customers, Schneider and C.R. England, run 1,000-mile safety driver-monitored test runs from Phoenix to Oklahoma City.

Big fleets that Daimler dominates are just part of Torc’s business plan.

“When we talk about scale, there’s scale with them,” Culhane said. “But the industry is much bigger than them.”

Three years of questions

It will take the next three years for Torc to influence and adopt the policies, procedures and standard operating efficiencies for autonomous trucks. How do you couple and decouple an autonomous truck? How do you inspect them?

“Putting those pieces together is where we think our part of the equation is,” Culhane said. “And then partners can step in and fill in more.”

Torc’s model is strictly hub-to-hub autonomy. But rather than build out its own transfer points, the company wants to leverage customer facilities. Schneider and C.R. England both have facilities at either end of the Phoenix-to-Oklahoma City test route.

More carriers will stand up facilities when Torc starts moving freight 430 miles without drivers from the U.S.-Mexico border city of Laredo, Texas, to Dallas in 2027.

“We don’t want to think of this as the Atlanta airport-size thing that everybody has to run through,” Culhane said. “We want to distribute that out. Take Dallas-Fort Worth. To truly access that market without owning 500 acres of real estate, you would need 10 locations around Dallas just to make the drayage legs work.”

Torc Lays Out Road Map to Autonomous Truck Launch in 2027

By Seth Clevenger, Transport Topics

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Self-driving truck developer Torc Robotics is fine-tuning its technology and laying the foundation for autonomous fleet operations as it targets a 2027 market launch for its virtual driver product.

The independent subsidiary of Daimler Truck is paving the way for that rollout by conducting pilots with major motor carriers and mapping out the details of how fleet customers will dispatch and monitor unmanned commercial vehicles in the coming years.

Torc outlined its commercialization plans and showcased its progress during ride-along demonstrations in its self-driving prototypes during a Nov. 13-14 press event at its Albuquerque research and development center.

Torc CEO Peter Vaughan Schmidt said autonomous trucks will enable fleets to transport freight “faster, safer and at a lower cost” while also helping to alleviate their long-standing driver recruiting and retention challenges.

By automating stretches of highway driving between designated freight hubs, autonomous trucks could shift more driver jobs toward local and regional routes that offer more home time and typically have lower turnover rates.

“This technology really has the potential to address this pain point, to drive down cost, to make goods arrive faster,” Schmidt said. “This can do good things for fleets but also for society.”

He suggested the barrier to entry for autonomous trucking will be relatively low. While the truck itself will be more expensive, the cost per mile will go down significantly.

“If you buy an autonomous truck, the payback time will be less than a year,” Schmidt said.

Torc’s virtual driver will be available with a modified version of the Freightliner Cascadia with redundant systems and components designed specifically to support autonomous driving.

In the years since Daimler acquired a majority stake in the company in 2019, Torc has not veered from its vision of unmanned trucks traveling between designated hubs on interstate highway routes as the first step for autonomous trucking.

“We are staying laser focused on U.S. hub-to-hub, on-highway,” said Joanna Buttler, head of Daimler Truck’s global autonomous technology group.

Although this business model requires strategically located freight hubs to serve as launching and landing points for autonomous trucks, those hubs won’t necessarily require massive investments in new infrastructure.

Instead, fleets could adapt or remodel existing terminals, distribution centers or warehouses located near interstate highways on high-volume freight lanes to serve as autonomous truck hubs, Schmidt said.

While the hub-to-hub model is designed to reduce complexity by minimizing off-highway driving, unmanned trucks still will need to safely handle difficult driving conditions they may encounter on the road.

During a 30-minute ride-along demonstration, Torc’s autonomous driving system navigated situations that can be challenging for professional drivers.

The 16-mile route, primarily on Interstates 25 and 40, incorporated many lane changes in moderate to heavy traffic, as well as a cloverleaf interchange and an intersection with a stoplight and crosswalk.

Torc’s prototype autonomous truck, a Freightliner Cascadia equipped with automated driving software and sensors, negotiated traffic while hauling a loaded trailer and traveling at highway speeds just under the posted speed limit of 65 mph.

The virtual driver waited for opportune times to complete lane changes based on traffic in the neighboring lanes and automatically created and maintained a safe following distance when a pickup truck cut in front of it.

Along the way, the autonomous driving system monitored and identified other vehicles on the road as well as a passenger car broken down on the shoulder.

As is the case in all of Torc’s testing on public roads, the self-driving truck had a safety driver behind the wheel and an autonomous vehicle specialist known as a “safety conductor” in the passenger seat.

The safety driver drove the truck manually from Torc’s research center to I-25, then activated the virtual driver while merging onto the highway. From that point on, the truck operated autonomously with no driver input for the remainder of the run until the safety driver resumed manual control while exiting the highway to return to the research facility.

To move beyond the testing and development phase and prepare for commercialization at scale, Torc will bring its technology to market in stages and gradually expand its network of supported routes, said Andrew Culhane, Torc’s chief strategy officer.

“We look at rollout in a phased approach,” he said.

Culhane said Torc will begin by removing the safety driver on an initial freight lane in Texas between Laredo and Dallas to prove the economic viability of its autonomous trucks. This north-south route covers about 400 miles and aligns with freight volumes generated by the ongoing nearshoring of production to Mexico from overseas markets.

At first, Torc will own the autonomous trucks and hubs on this first lane and manage everything from operations to maintenance. Over time, however, the company will transition to a model where its customers own and manage self-driving vehicles themselves while fleet operators or other third-party partners own and operate autonomous truck hubs.

After establishing the Laredo-Dallas lane, Torc plans to expand its network to routes along I-40 and connect with key market areas including Phoenix, Albuquerque, Oklahoma City, St. Louis, Memphis, Tenn., and Atlanta. The next phase of development would add regional expansions to El Paso, Texas; Houston, and Shreveport, La.

Torc also outlined a set of specialized job functions to support hub-to-hub autonomous truck operations.

A “hub operator” will handle physical tasks involving the autonomous truck such as conducting pre-trip safety inspections, refueling, hooking the truck to the trailer and driving it into position for launch.

When the truck is ready, a “mission manager” will dispatch and remotely monitor autonomous trucks as they transport freight. Torc said it plans to develop integrations with fleets’ existing transportation management systems to support this mission control function.

Autonomous trucks also will involve new responsibilities and training for maintenance technicians, roadside assistance and customer support.

In the meantime, Torc already has been using its test fleet to haul freight through pilot projects with major trucking companies such as Schneider and C.R. England.

Schmidt highlighted a pilot run from Phoenix to Oklahoma that spans about 1,000 miles with the truck arriving “with the last drip of diesel.”

Torc’s autonomous advisory council, consisting of major carriers, freight brokers, maintenance providers and other industry stakeholders, has provided guidance to the company on how best to integrate its technology into real-world freight networks.

At its last meeting, the members of that council represented $90 billion in freight, Schmidt said.

“I’m not at all worried about commercial traction,” he said. “We are shaping the future together with them.”

Autonomous Trucks Reshaping the Freight Industry

By Seth Clevenger, Transport Topics

Introduction: The Road to Autonomous Trucking

Autonomous trucking, once regarded as the stuff of science fiction, is gradually moving closer to viability in real-world freight operations after years of investment, development work and on-road testing and validation.

A host of technology developers, truck manufacturers and industry suppliers have been working to overcome the significant technical challenges and tackle myriad operational considerations to make unmanned trucks a reality on interstate highways — at least on certain freight lanes and under certain operating conditions.

Proponents of this emerging technology say autonomous trucks could unlock significant efficiency and productivity gains while improving highway safety.

To pave the way for that vision, several technology developers already have been using self-driving trucks to haul freight on public roads through partnerships with shippers, carriers and logistics providers. In these early deployments, self-driving trucks still travel with safety drivers behind the wheel and typically an operations specialist in the passenger seat, but the goal for most of these developers is to enable unmanned operation in the coming years.

To enable autonomous operation, these companies are equipping commercial trucks with onboard computing to support automated driving software along with sensor arrays that incorporate cameras, radar and lidar to monitor the vehicle’s surroundings as it travels down the highway.

Although most autonomous truck developers are targeting unmanned operation, these companies are pursuing business models that would complement the trucking industry’s workforce rather than displacing it.

These developers are not attempting to produce unmanned vehicles that can go everywhere or haul every type of freight that a human driver can cover. Instead, they are reducing the complexity of the problem by constraining autonomous trucks to a more limited operational design domain, or ODD — which refers to a set of operating conditions that the autonomous driving system is designed to handle. Typically, this means that autonomous trucks would operate only on specific, repeatable routes that are well suited to automation, leaving more complex routes and driving situations to trucks piloted by human drivers.

Some developers envision autonomous trucking as a new mode of transportation for shippers, carriers and logistics providers to consider when planning freight movements.

Since autonomous trucks will only travel on certain routes and under specific conditions, the trucking industry, and by extension the nation’s supply chain and economy, will continue to depend on professional truck drivers for the foreseeable future. In fact, the industry will need to recruit more drivers, not fewer, as freight volumes increase over time. But autonomous trucks could ease the industry’s struggles to recruit drivers and help mitigate high driver turnover rates, especially in longhaul trucking.

While the rollout of this technology has been slower than many predicted several years ago, developers have made tangible progress toward deployment and commercialization.

A crucial component of the development work is designing autonomous driving systems to respond to innumerable edge cases — the very rare or unexpected events that the autonomous vehicles might encounter, such as a fallen tree blocking the roadway.

Today, autonomous truck developers are operating primarily in the U.S. Sunbelt, especially in Southwestern states such as Texas, Arizona and New Mexico that have ideal weather conditions and a favorable regulatory environment for testing and eventual deployment. However, some have mapped out nationwide networks for autonomous truck lanes as part of their longer-term ambitions.

Potential Benefits of Autonomous Trucks

Autonomous could hold the potential to unlock numerous safety and efficiency benefits for the freight transportation industry.

Increased Efficiency and Productivity

Fully autonomous trucks would no longer be constrained by drivers’ limited driving time under hours-of-service regulations, thus opening the way for much greater vehicle utilization and higher productivity.

Improved Safety on the Roads

Autonomous vehicles also promise potential safety benefits. Although automated driving software is not as flexible or adaptable as the human mind, it also can perceive hazards sooner and react faster. Unlike humans, computers do not get tired or become distracted or angry behind the wheel.

Reduced Labor Costs

And perhaps most significantly, autonomous trucks could help ease the trucking industry’s longstanding struggle to attract and retain professional drivers.

By automating some longhaul truck routes in hub-to-hub freight operations, autonomous trucks could shift some driver jobs from longhaul truckload operations — where driver turnover rates can exceed 100% for some carriers — to shorthaul and regional jobs that provide more home time and better match the preferences of many younger drivers.

Potential for Reduced Carbon Emissions

Some autonomous vehicle developers also say their technology will yield significant fuel savings because autonomous trucks will operate more efficiently than human-driven trucks and may travel at lower average speeds that consume less fuel.

Business Cases for Autonomous Trucks

Over time, the development of autonomous trucks has split into narrower and more diverse use cases.

Unmanned Longhaul Trucking

Today, the majority of autonomous truck developers are designing their virtual drivers to haul freight in regular hub-to-hub routes on interstate highways, thus avoiding the more complex urban driving associated with the first and final mile.

In this business model, autonomous trucks would cover the longhaul portion of a shipment while trucks driven manually by human drivers would continue to handle the first and final legs of the journey, with human-piloted and autonomous trucks swapping trailers at designated transfer hubs.

Other Self-Driving Trucking Operations

Other companies are pursuing very different but still limited use cases.

Gatik, for instance, is using self-driving, medium-duty box trucks to move freight on shorthaul delivery routes on public roads between logistics sites and store locations.

Other developers are focusing on off-road applications. Outrider, for one, is working to enable unmanned operations in logistics yards, while others such as Pronto are targeting industrial sites such as mining operations.

Self-Driving Trucking from Afar

Another concept for autonomous truck deployment involves teleoperation, where autonomous vehicles are supervised from afar by remote drivers in offices. The trucks would drive autonomously but remote drivers could intervene if the vehicle is stopped or encounters an unexpected obstacle.

Supervised Autonomy

Furthermore, some developers have pursued various forms of “supervised autonomy.”

Plus, for example, has begun commercializing its Plus Drive self-driving technology as a driver-assist system to help pave the way for full autonomy in the future.

Truck Platooning

Other technology developers have sought to combine automated driving technology with truck platooning, where two or more trucks form a convoy connected via vehicle-to-vehicle communications. Synchronized braking enables reduced following distances to provide enhanced aerodynamics and fuel savings. Typically, the lead truck is piloted by a human driver while the following trucks are either partially automated with driver-assist capabilities or potentially “drone” trucks with no driver onboard.

Industry Partnerships

Developers of autonomous driving systems are not alone in their quest to make unmanned trucks a reality.

These companies have formed partnerships with global truck manufacturers, industry suppliers and a range of other transportation industry stakeholders.

Autonomous Truck Driving Technology

One key element of this development work is integrating autonomous driving software and sensors with mass-produced commercial vehicles in a way that ensures safety and reliability.

While some early developers in the autonomous truck space saw potential for aftermarket installations of self-driving systems, nearly all of today’s autonomous truck developers say their technology will need to be installed on commercial trucks at the factory level.

Redundant Systems for Safety

Without a driver behind the wheel as a backup, autonomous trucks will require additional components and redundant systems to ensure safety in the event of a technical failure.

Autonomous truck platforms developed by truck makers and technology suppliers feature secondary braking and steering systems, redundant powertrain controls and cybersecurity safeguards.

Levels of Automated Driving

As development work on autonomous trucks continues, efforts to enhance and expand the capabilities of driver-assist technologies also are advancing.

Driver-Assist Technologies

Truck manufacturers and industry suppliers have been introducing advanced driver assist systems, or ADAS, that build upon the safety technologies that have been on the market for years, such as automatic emergency braking, lane departure warnings, electronic stability control and adaptive cruise control.

More recently, truck makers have begun offering driver-assist features that partially automate steering functions. These automated steering capabilities include lane keep assist and lane departure protection.

These driver-assist functions and the components and sensors that support them can be viewed as building blocks for fully autonomous vehicles.

Self-Driving Automation Levels

Nonetheless, the development of autonomous driving is largely distinct from ADAS because the technical requirements and business cases for fully autonomous vehicles differ significantly from driver-assist systems that depend on a driver to operate the vehicle.

To more clearly define the capabilities of various driver-assist and automated driving systems, SAE International has designated the following levels of vehicle automation:

  • Level 0No Automation: The driver performs all aspects of driving.
  • Level 1Driver Assistance: The driver-assist system automates either acceleration/braking or steering during a specific driving mode. The driver continues to manually control the non-automated function. Example: adaptive cruise control
  • Level 2Partial Automation: The driver-assist system automates both acceleration/braking and steering during a specific driving mode. The driver must remain engaged at all times and continue to monitor the road. Example: adaptive cruise control plus automatic lane centering
  • Level 3High Automation: The automated driving system controls all aspects of driving during a specific driving mode. The driver can disengage from driving but must be ready to respond to a request to intervene.
  • Level 4Conditional Automation: The automated driving system controls all aspects of driving during a specific driving mode with no expectation that a driver will need to intervene.
  • Level 5Full Automation: The automated driving system controls all aspects of driving under all roadway and environmental conditions that can be managed by a human driver.

SAE Level 3 and below represent driver-assist systems that by definition require the presence of a driver.

SAE Levels 4 and 5 are autonomous driving systems that do not require any driver input or fallback performance while active and are agnostic on the presence of a driver in the vehicle.

Trucks With No Driver

Autonomous truck developers generally are targeting Level 4 automated driving with no driver onboard. Although these trucks would not require a driver, these vehicles would only be able to operate on routes and under conditions that fit into the technology’s operational design domain.

SAE Level 5 autonomy, where an unmanned vehicle can handle all routes and driving conditions that a human driver could negotiate, is a much greater technical challenge and therefore highly unlikely to be realized for decades to come.

Timing of Large-Scale Deployment Remains Unclear

Industry stakeholders from truck manufacturers to industry suppliers and technology developers increasingly see the rollout of autonomous trucks not as a question of if, but of when.

Deploying Autonomous Trucks at Scale

However, the precise timing for meaningful commercial deployment of autonomous trucks at scale remains elusive.

In the trucking industry, the prospect of highly automated vehicles became a more prominent topic in 2014 and 2015 with the introduction of the Mercedes-Benz Future Truck 2025 and Freightliner Inspiration concept trucks.

Since then, numerous technology companies and startup firms have joined the push to develop various forms of highly automated driving capabilities for commercial vehicles.

In addition, the transition to a 5G wireless network is likely to open up new opportunities in terms of autonomous trucking technology.

Self-Driving Passenger Cars

Autonomous driving technology for the freight transportation industry is developing in parallel with the deployment of autonomous passenger cars in ride-hailing operations.

Google sister company Waymo and General Motors subsidiary Cruise are now operating fully driverless robotaxis in select geographies such as Phoenix, San Francisco and Austin, Texas.

Much like autonomous trucks, the development and rollout of driverless passenger cars was many years in the making. Waymo, for example, began in 2009 as the Google self-driving car project but did not begin offering its fully autonomous ride-hailing service to the public until 2020.

In the mid-2000s, autonomous vehicle challenges held by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, helped kick start and inspire further development of self-driving vehicles.


The road to autonomous trucking has been long and winding.

Many technology developers and startups have set out to solve the technical and operational challenges of deploying autonomous trucks. Some of those companies have come and gone, been acquired, exited the industry or pivoted to different business cases. Others continue to make progress toward their goal of large-scale commercial deployments of autonomous trucks.

Along the way, developers have been working to address the many operational details of effectively integrating autonomous trucks into real-world freight networks, including vehicle and system maintenance and interactions with law enforcement.

Deployments also will hinge on public acceptance. Developers will need to build trust with government regulators, elected officials and the motoring public.

Regulatory and Safety Concerns

Regulatory and legislative frameworks for autonomous trucks will continue to evolve at the state and federal levels.

Although autonomous trucks appear poised to become an increasingly important part of the freight transportation system at some point in the coming years and decades, the timing and pace of these deployments remain fluid and subject to many variables. But the development work, on-road testing and industry collaboration of the past several years have brought this future into much clearer focus.

Einride Begins Regular Unmanned Moves for GE Appliances

By Seth Clevenger, Transport Topics

An unmanned cargo vehicle operated by Swedish startup Einride has begun transporting goods on a regular basis for GE Appliances at a private site in Selmer, Tenn., the companies announced Nov. 13.

Einride’s autonomous electric transport, or AET, is moving finished air conditioning units from GE Appliances’ manufacturing facility to its nearby warehouse via a private roadway Mondays through Thursdays.

The electric-powered autonomous vehicle, which has no cab or steering wheel, crawls forward at a methodical pace, moving at an average speed of 3 mph on a newly constructed transport lane. The private roadway is owned by GE Appliances but open to other vehicles, although the road does not see much traffic, an Einride spokesman said. Each trip covers about 0.3 mile.

Einride said the route illustrates how autonomous vehicles can be deployed through its freight-capacity-as-a-service model, in which shippers pay a monthly subscription to access the company’s vehicles, software, maintenance and support.

Tiffany Heathcott, the first remote operator hired by Einride, works on-site to monitor the vehicle’s progress as it transports goods autonomously.

This long-term deployment builds upon Einride’s previous collaboration with GE Appliances. The companies tested the autonomous vehicle in a gated environment in 2021 and conducted an unmanned pilot on a public road in Selmer in 2022.

“We are very proud to partner with GE Appliances and be able to lead the industry in providing autonomous technology and deploying it in the strongest commercial use case today,” said Henrik Green, general manager of autonomous technologies at Einride.

Einride’s AET is part of a broader project aimed at creating an automated logistics system that improves worker safety and efficiency at GE Appliances’ site in Selmer.

The home appliance manufacturer also has partnered with other technology developers such as TaskWatch and Slip Robotics.

TaskWatch is providing artificial intelligence-enabled cameras to trigger a control board to raise and lower the dock doors and lock the Einride vehicle in place. Then the Slip robot automatically loads and unloads the vehicle, reducing loading times by 80%.

“This implementation in Selmer is helping us reduce emissions, allowing our employees to focus on high-value tasks, reducing traffic in congested areas to create a safer work environment, and eliminating some of the most challenging ergonomic tasks like climbing on and off a forklift and hooking and unhooking trailers,” Harry Chase, senior director of central materials at GE Appliances, said in the announcement. “We believe robotics and automation technology should work with and for people to improve their jobs.”

Einride, founded in 2016, is developing and deploying a range of connected electric and autonomous commercial vehicles, along with charging infrastructure and fleet management technology to support them.

Daimler Truck North America Commits $1.3M To Support PSU

By University Communications, Portland State University

Daimler Truck North America has made a $1.3 million philanthropic investment to support faculty and students in Portland State University’s School of Business and its Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science.

The commitment will provide scholarships and assistantships for undergraduates and graduate students in business and engineering. It will also provide support to establish two professorships, one in the PSU School of Business and one in the PSU Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science.

“We are honored by this gift from a key regional employer whose industry leadership and community investments have long had a profound impact on Oregon,” said PSU President Ann Cudd. “Portland State educates a diverse talent pipeline for business and industry. We look forward to deepening a relationship that has been great for students, beneficial for Daimler Truck and important to Portland.”

As the state’s urban-serving public university, PSU educates the largest percentage of diverse, first-generation students — more than 80% of whom remain in the region when they graduate, contributing to Oregon’s long-term growth and stability.

“Daimler Truck North America has long had a strong partnership with PSU, with more than 600 alumni working here over the years,” said Angela Lentz, chief people officer for Daimler Truck North America. “This philanthropic commitment is intended to help build a talent pipeline, enhance research collaborations around industry-applicable topics, and drive regional business and industry growth.”

“Daimler Truck and PSU share fundamental areas of overlapping interest and expertise in engineering and business,” said Joseph Bull, dean of the PSU Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science. “By leveraging these capabilities, we can jointly pursue research collaborations in areas such as autonomous vehicles and advanced manufacturing, and pursue innovative solutions to emerging challenges.”

“The fact that this gift supports faculty and students alike reflects Daimler Truck’s long-term partnership with the university,” said Cliff Allen, dean of the PSU School of Business. “For decades, Daimler Truck leaders have shared industry knowledge, reviewed curriculum and research findings, and mentored high-potential students. They have worked alongside us to inspire tomorrow’s diverse talent.”

How Partnering With May Mobility Helps Transit Agencies Better Serve Disabled Communities

By May Mobility

Our goal as an autonomous vehicle (AV) service provider is to make transit more accessible and equitable. So when we design and engineer our AVs, we take steps to accommodate the needs of as many riders as possible.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that 27 percent of adults in the U.S. live with some type of disability. That equates to around 77 million Americans. Of these, 12.1 percent have a serious mobility issue, with 6.1 percent deaf or hard of hearing and 4.8 percent with a disability related to vision. The U.S. Department of Transportation further reports that people with disabilities are less likely to own or have access to vehicles than people without disabilities. They found that 22.5 percent of non workers and 12.2 percent of workers with disabilities live in zero vehicle households.

Without accessible transportation options that take disabilities into account, people with disabilities can be limited by their environment. But on-demand AV microtransit empowers people by offering a convenient and accessible solution that meets their individual needs and schedules. Transit agencies that prioritize this kind of innovative service can allow people with disabilities to enjoy much greater freedom, independence and control.

How does autonomous on-demand microtransit benefit people with disabilities?

Many people with disabilities need to schedule their days around the limited transportation options available to them. Often, this must be done days in advance to ensure they can travel and return safely and with confidence. The obligation to micromanage travel arrangements can be very frustrating and sometimes makes it impossible to access employment, grocery shopping, medical care or entertainment.

We’re designing on-demand autonomous vehicles that bridge the transportation gap to help dismantle these obstacles to everyday life. Our AV deployments aim to provide easy and reliable access to vital services and leisure activities that may otherwise be hard to reach. Transit agencies should prioritize adapting their services to better accommodate people with varying abilities, to ensure equal access for everyone.

Designing for disabilities

By collaborating with a leading manufacturer of accessible transportation and mobility solutions, we’ve modified our Toyota Sienna Autono-Maas vehicles to include an ADA-compliant boarding ramp. They can also accommodate two ambulatory riders or a service animal, and are attended by a friendly autonomous vehicle operator (AVO) who assists with entering and exiting. We strive to give wheelchair users greater agency in travel with the same level of safety as other passengers.

But we don’t just design our AVs to empower those with mobility issues. We are also working on incorporating speakers and a display to provide important information to riders, especially helpful to those with audio or visual impairments. In the meantime, our AVOs are happy to answer questions and, if requested, will announce when the vehicle is approaching its destination for added support.

Grand Rapids, Minnesota deployment: Accessible autonomous transportation in action

We’ve deployed our AVs in 11 communities across the U.S. and Japan, giving over 320,000 rides. Of these, our deployment in Grand Rapids, Minnesota has been particularly well received by its wheelchair users. The program launched in 2022 to compensate for transportation gaps and increase equity and accessibility in a rural community. The deployment consists of five AVs, three of which are wheelchair-accessible.

Among our many partners is the non-profit accessibility movement Mobility Mania, whose goal is to make Itasca County the most accessible county in Minnesota. The organization’s co-founder and well-known advocate for handicapped-accessible transportation, Myrna Peterson, quickly became a regular rider. When asked about the impact our AVs are having on her community, she told us:

May Mobility has made a huge difference in our community for those people who aren’t as mobile. It gives them the opportunity to get accessible transportation to events in the evening and on weekends, to church on Sunday, to a concert, to one of their grandchildren’s sporting events or just out leisurely to have dinner with friends or family. I want people to enjoy a better quality of life than having to stay home because they can’t get there.

Our Grand Rapids deployment has been an incredible triumph for AV technology and even featured in the new BBC series Technology’s Golden Age

St. Charles Community College Breaks Ground on Regional Workforce Innovation Center in Wentzville

By Boone Country Connection

Expanding west, St. Charles Community College held a groundbreaking ceremony Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023, for its new, innovative, future-focused, Regional Workforce Innovation Center. It will be the first building on the college’s new 55-acre campus, at the corner of Interstate Drive and Schaper Road in Wentzville.

SCC’s Regional Workforce Innovation Center will prepare the region’s workforce for jobs in technology, advanced manufacturing, robotics, sustainable energy, healthcare and more. The college anticipates opening the center in the fall of 2025.

Governor Mike Parson spoke at the event, along with St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann, SCC President Barbara Kavalier, Ph.D., SCC Board of Trustees President Mary Schnare Stodden, and SCC Sr. VP for Administrative Services and Chief Operating Officer Todd Galbierz. They were joined by key representatives from the community and business and industry.

“Workforce development and education are a top priority for our administration. We’re proud to see St. Charles Community College committed to working with local business and industry leaders to help meet our workforce needs in the region and across the state,” said Governor Mike Parson.

“This new center will be the premier technical training and education center in this region,” said SCC President Barbara Kavalier, Ph.D. “We recognize the rapidity at which technology is changing the world of work, and this center will help us better prepare students for desirable jobs.”

SCC will introduce new programs in advanced manufacturing, including battery technology, electric and autonomous vehicles, renewable wind and solar energy, high-tech processes and robotics. In addition to providing education and training for students, the college will have a “Make-it Center” lab where students in middle and high school can explore new technology such as how a 3-D printer works and even operate a robotic arm. An introduction to advanced manufacturing technologies and other skilled trades will be available for students with options to earn associate degrees and certificates.

The Regional Workforce Innovation Center is funded primarily by the state through the American Rescue Plan Act funds and the MoExcels Workforce Initiative. The estimated cost for the Regional Workforce Innovation Center is $41.9 million.

NC A&T Shows Off New Self-Driving Vehicles

By Zyneria Byrd, Spectrum News 1

GREENSBORO, NC — North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University unveiled a fleet of new self-driving vehicles for a new research pilot program.

Students, faculty, staff and community members can take the shuttles from campus to downtown Greensboro.

The fleet is made up of three self-driving shuttles that go no faster than 25 mph, a self-driving van and two regular sedans.

The shuttles can perform all driving tasks under specific circumstances, and a human driver can override and take control of the car. The cars are in compliance with the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, the university said.

The purpose for the program is to bring autonomous vehicles to public and rural transportation.

“There are a lot of companies working on autonomous vehicles, said Dr. Ali Karimoddini, Professor and Director, CR2C2 Regional University Transportation Center at North Carolina A&T.

He said not many companies are working to use selfdriving vehicles for public transportation and rural transportaion.

“This is the gap that needs more effort and attention. And that’s what our research team is focused to address this gap,” he said.

After the pilot program, the research team will go over feedback from riders to make tweaks to the research to make the autonomous vehicles an even safer ride.

The autonomous vehicle pilot program will be open to the public on weekdays from Sept. 19 to Oct. 13th, between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.

The two stops on this one-mile ride will begin at the Harold L. Martin Sr. Engineering Research and Innovation Complex to the Miriam P. Brenner Children’s Museum.

Autonomous Driving Goes Into High Gear

By Gideon Lichfield and Lauren Goode, Wired

ON THIS WEEK’S episode of Have a Nice Future, Gideon Lichfield and Lauren Goode talk to Chris Urmson, CEO of the self-driving-truck company Aurora. They discuss new legislation in California that could help or hinder a driverless future, whether self-driving vehicles are actually safer, and the consequences for the transportation industry if (human) truck drivers become unnecessary.


Note: This is an automated transcript, which may contain errors.

Gideon Lichfield: Hello?

Lauren Goode: Hey, Gideon.

Gideon Lichfield: Lauren, is that you?

Lauren Goode: It’s me.

Gideon Lichfield: It’s kind of late. Why are you calling me this late?

Lauren Goode: Well, I’m calling you from a self-driving taxi.

Gideon Lichfield: Wait. As in totally driverless, no human?

Lauren Goode: Totally driverless, human-free. I can talk on my phone all I want. It’s pretty wild. And I just, I had to call you.


Gideon Lichfield: Hi, I’m Gideon Lichfield.

Lauren Goode: And I’m Lauren Goode, coming to you live from a totally driverless car, and this is Have a Nice Future, a podcast about how terrifyingly fast everything is changing.

Gideon Lichfield: Each week we talk to someone with big, audacious, and sometimes unnerving ideas about the future, and we ask them how we can all prepare to live in it.

Lauren Goode: Our guest this week is Chris Urmson. He was one of the early leaders of Google’s self-driving-car project, and he’s the current CEO of Aurora, a company that does automated trucking.

Chris Urmson (audio clip): I think it’s much less a desire about making things autonomous and much more about improving quality of life.

Gideon Lichfield: So Lauren, is this your first time?


Lauren Goode: Are you asking me if I’ve been around the block before?

Gideon Lichfield: Oh, I know you’ve been around the block before. No, I’m asking, is this your first time in a self-driving car?

Lauren Goode: It’s actually my second time, and I have to say I’ve been blown away by this experience. I’m sitting in this car right now, and I’m in the back seat, but I have a full view of the “driver.” There’s just no one in the driver’s seat, but the wheel is turning, I’ve got navigation open in front of me, I can control the temperature and the radio, I can even play trivia back here, and we just pulled up to a stoplight, and yep, the car knew to stop. It’s pretty crazy. Have you been in one of these taxis?

Gideon Lichfield: No. I mean, I’ve seen self-driving cars all over San Francisco, but I didn’t know you could hail one as a taxi.

Lauren Goode: Yes, I think only one or two services right now will actually let beta testers hail them like a taxi, but the rest of them are just cruising all around San Francisco testing. And there’s actually been some interesting legislation happening here in California that could affect the broader self-driving industry too, which is what we’re gonna get into on today’s show.

Gideon Lichfield: Is self-driving even still a thing we’re expecting? I mean, I remember a decade ago we were promised full autonomy by this point.

Lauren Goode: Yeah, and flying cars.

Gideon Lichfield: And flying cars, and who knows what else. And then there was that fatal self-driving Uber crash in 2018—WIRED profiled the operator of that car last year. And then I keep seeing stories about self-driving companies shuttering, or pivoting, or Teslas on Full Self-Driving mode crashing into things. So I’ve been starting to think that maybe we’re not gonna let go of the steering wheel anytime soon.

Lauren Goode: Well, you make some good points, but that’s not what Chris Urmson thinks. OK, it’s worth noting that Aurora’s big focus isn’t on robotaxis. So he didn’t really comment much on those. What they do focus on is trucking. But the idea is generally the same, right? Take a vehicle that typically a very distracted human driver would operate, and then for safety reasons, make it automated. And you know, for efficiency reasons too, because always be optimizing.

Gideon Lichfield: Oh yes, efficiency capitalism, we always seem to come back to that here on this podcast. Anyway, are you now pretty much sold on autonomous cars, like you’d happily quit driving?

Lauren Goode: Well, despite how fun this ride is, I mean, actually, I don’t feel the least bit alarmed being in this car right now. Maybe I should. I still have some real concerns. And I think that you’re gonna hear some of those in this conversation with Chris.

Gideon Lichfield: And that is coming up right after the break. Get it? The break!

Lauren Goode: [Chuckle] I didn’t get it. Could you explain it to me, please?

Gideon Lichfield: I’ll talk to you later.


Lauren Goode: Chris Urmson, thanks so much for joining me on Have a Nice Future.

Chris Urmson: Oh, thanks for having me. Glad to be here.

Lauren Goode: Are you having a nice future?

Chris Urmson: Yeah. You know what? There’s some things that I wish were a little better around the environment and politics, but you don’t get a chance to work on something exciting, get to work on it with amazing people—healthy family, yeah. Things are locally good, globally could use some work.

Lauren Goode: Well, you are working on things that are in the area of solutions around that—electric vehicles and autonomous vehicles. So I have to tell you, last night I went for a ride in a totally driverless car around San Francisco. If I can be totally honest, I loved it.

Chris Urmson: Yeah, it’s one of these things where, you know, over the last 20 years I’ve worked in this space and you get people that come in to ride in one of these vehicles and the number of times I’ve had somebody get into a vehicle and the first five or 10 minutes they’re a little bit anxious, they’re kind of hyper alert and vigilant. And then 10 minutes in they’re like, is this all it does? And 15 minutes they’re in the back checking their phone, and their email. And it’s amazing how quickly people adapt to it and enjoy it.

Lauren Goode: Before Aurora, you led Google’s self-driving car team. How was it that you landed on trucks?

Chris Urmson: We’re focused on trucking first because we see that as the right entry application for the technology. That today, we see a real need for safety and improvement of safety on the road. Trucks are involved in a half million accidents a year in the US and we see an opportunity to reduce that dramatically. We just all lived through the supply chain crisis. So that opportunity to improve the quality of a fundamental part of the US ecosystem and economy seems like an incredible opportunity as well. And then we see this real opportunity to build a business here that the value of moving goods through the world is high. And so, as a company trying to build a technology and deploy it and actually see it used and be useful for folks, that’s a good place to start.

Lauren Goode: What were some of the bottlenecks that you experienced at Google that informed the way that you’re building Aurora?

Chris Urmson: Things we thought about were, while it’s important to be driving out on the road to understand what’s happening out there and, to some degree, really, you can’t get to enough scale in driving on the road to build confidence in the safety of the system alone. And so we invested in simulation technology, which is the heart of how we develop our system. Similarly, we thought about how, can you see far enough to drive a truck down the road? And when we found the company, there wasn’t a lidar technology that could do that. And so that was a technology that we’ve been investing in for the last five years that is really one of the key enablers for us to be able to drive trucks safely at speed down the road. So those are a couple of the areas where we saw real opportunity.

Lauren Goode: So you’re not making the trucks—you have a package of technology software that goes into the trucks that’s called Aurora Driver?

Chris Urmson: Yeah. The way to think about it is today, if you’re a trucking company, you will go to a manufacturer, say PACCAR, and you’ll buy a Peterbilt 579 tractor, alright? That’s the truck part of it. And then you’ll hire a driver to operate that truck, and then you’ll get paid for pulling loads through the world. And what we’re building at Aurora is that driver. And so, you know in the future, if you’re one of our customers, you’ll call up PACCAR or Volvo, the other truck company that we work with today, and you’ll say, we wanna buy one of those trucks and we’d like to buy it with the Aurora Driver installed on it, and then you’ll pay Aurora as we drive the truck for you, much like you do today.

Lauren Goode: So it seems like safety is really at the core of what you’re striving for here, and safety in particular with self-driving semi-trucks. So forgive me if this is sort of a basic question, but I’m guessing other people are wondering too, like how are self-driving cars safer?

Chris Urmson: It’s a great question and it’s a very nuanced question. How do you figure out that they are safer? One part of it is that they don’t get distracted, right? And this is surprisingly important that you or I, when we’re driving down the freeway, particularly if it’s been a long day or if we didn’t get much sleep last night, it’s easy for our attention to wander because driving most of the time feels really easy. It’s easy to be distracted by those things. And so it’s hard to underestimate the value of just, this is its one job, it’s driving down the road and it’s paying attention to it the whole time. There’s other parts of it, which are that when I wanna make a lane change on the freeway, I have a look at the traffic in front of me and say, OK, I’ve got time to make a look. I look over my shoulder, I check to see if there’s a vehicle there. If there isn’t, then I start to make my lane change. But if there is, then I have to look back and forward, in front of me. And if that vehicle in front of me is suddenly stopped and I didn’t expect it, then it’s kinda sketchy. And so the fact that we can look 360 degrees the whole time, as a self-driving vehicle is actually really powerful.

Lauren Goode: What about the cars or trucks actually making the decision though over how to handle a situation like that? How are you programming Aurora semi-trucks and the self-driving technology?

Chris Urmson: It turns out that the federal government, through the Department of Transportation and the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, they’ve enumerated all the ways vehicles get into crashes. And so we are going through the process of looking into all those ways, creating simulations off them, and we’ve built tens of thousands of these simulations and then asking, what would the Aurora Driver do in this situation? And so, in the situations where it’s possible to avoid, we wanna make sure that the Aurora Driver can, and where it can’t, we wanna make sure it’s mitigating and doing the “right thing” to reduce the risk of that event.

Lauren Goode: And truck drivers are actually much more likely to be killed on a job than the average American worker because of increased risks.

Chris Urmson: Yeah, that’s right. It turns out that if you’re driving a truck in America, you’re about 10 times as likely to die on the job as the average American.

Lauren Goode: So how is your data playing out right now in, let’s still call it early stages for Aurora, when you compare the accident rates of your truck drivers in autonomous semi-trucks versus those that are totally human operated?

Chris Urmson: Through the course of this year, so far, we’ve driven 100,000 miles and we’ve had no events that would’ve resulted in an accident. We did have one situation we experienced where someone was driving a light vehicle on the road near one of our trucks, and they basically fell asleep at the wheel. And that vehicle drifted over a couple of lanes, and then bumped into the side of our trailer. We, you know, the automated driving system, the Aurora Driver tried to move over to make space for it, but couldn’t get far enough away from it. The car bounced off, came to a stop, fortunately everybody walked away. And for a car-truck accident, it was about as good as it can get. But it’s a reminder of how challenging driving can be, but we saw the Aurora Driver behave in the way we want. And in fact, we took this a step further and we looked at the accident reports for all of the fatal accidents that had happened on the route that our trucks drive today between Dallas and Houston. And it turns out there was about 30 of them. And of the 29 of them where the Aurora Driver could have been operating, we simulated those and saw that the Aurora Driver would’ve avoided all of those collisions. That was 29 fatal crashes that would not have occurred if the Aurora Driver had been operating the vehicle that initiated it. Which is kind of incredible, if you think about it. And these are the kind of things where you see a real opportunity to improve the status quo.

Lauren Goode: Of the semi-trucks that you’re currently testing. I think you have 31 trucks on the road in Texas, is that correct?

Chris Urmson: That sounds about right. Yeah.

Lauren Goode: There are still human operators inside of them to ensure everything goes smoothly. When do you anticipate that you might phase the human out of the equation?

Chris Urmson: People will always be part of our business, of course, but we’re working to have our trucks operating next year without people on board.

Lauren Goode: So by 2024, without any people.

Chris Urmson: By the end of 2024.

Lauren Goode: By the end of 2024?

Chris Urmson: Yeah.

Lauren Goode: OK.

Chris Urmson: That’s what we’re working towards. Yeah.

Lauren Goode: So what, I mean, what does that mean for the truck driver shortage? What does that mean for people who are career drivers?

Chris Urmson: Yeah. So, today in the US we’re short something like 80,000 drivers. And by the end of this, the end of the decade, we expect that to double. What we expect will happen is that the Aurora Driver will do more of the long haul trips and human drivers will do more local drives. As we look forward, if you are a truck driver today, my expectation is you’ll be able to retire a truck driver if you want to. But along the way, there’s gonna be all kinds of new and interesting opportunities in logistics, whether it’s working in a command center and remotely supervising vehicles or terminal operations, or, you know, in our case we’ve, we have a number of folks who are vehicle test operators. So there’s gonna be a whole proliferation of new jobs, as it becomes more efficient to move goods through the world.

Lauren Goode: So you don’t think the job of truck driver will disappear completely.

Chris Urmson: I think over the long term, I think they will. As a society, we can look at this and say, it’s really important that we move goods through the world and we really appreciate the people who are doing it, but do we really want them to be doing it?

Lauren Goode: Do you see it as your responsibility to address the displacement of truck drivers? Should self-driving trucks take over completely?

Chris Urmson: Today already we work with colleges in Montana and in Pittsburgh to create new programs, so technician programs for automated technology, technician programs around the things like the optics that go into the lidar. So we’re trying to help build the training infrastructure for the jobs in this industry in the future already. And I think I take some inspiration from the banking industry where when the automated teller rolled out it was, geez, we’re gonna have fewer people in banking and all these people are gonna lose their jobs. And what happened in practice is because the teller was able to take some of the mundane mechanical parts out of the job, they were able to do that more efficiently, they were to open traumatically more branches and the branch job instead of being this kind of, rote counting money out and signing checks—turn into one that was a higher value job. And actually I think banking employment has increased with the automated teller deployment.

Lauren Goode: Chris I have to say, I think you’re the first person who’s ever come on this podcast to say you’ve been inspired by the banking industry.

Chris Urmson: Yeah. I don’t know about inspired by, but look to that as a trajectory for technology.

Lauren Goode: OK. We’ll cross that over our bingo card. The Have a Nice Futurebingo card.

Chris Urmson: There we go.

Lauren Goode: So in a lot of interviews you’ve also focused on how much faster goods will be delivered. I think you said before, if it takes a human driver two to three days to go from Dallas to LA by comparison it would take an autonomous truck just one day. What is actually the stronger argument? Is it safety or is it about streamlining production when it comes to deliveries or shipped goods? It’s commerce, it’s efficiency. What’s your strongest pitch there?

Chris Urmson: It’s an add. And I think that’s one of the things that’s exciting about the technology is that you get both. You don’t get the efficiency benefits, you don’t get the economic benefits without the safety benefits. And so one of the things that I think about with automotive safety is that a lot of the time it’s about prohibition. Don’t look at your phone while driving. But of course, like people do, in contrast with this technology whether it’s in moving goods or moving people, you’ll get the benefit of moving through the world of whether it’s delivering goods or getting where you’re going, but you don’t have to have the prohibition at that point because you’re not driving of looking at the phone or watching a video or having a nap. And so I think that it’s a false choice to ask whether it’s one or the other. It’s actually the fact that you get both.

Lauren Goode: So we should definitely talk about AB 316, which is a bill in California where we both are, that if passed would require human operators in all trucks within the state. I imagine this is a big concern for you.

Chris Urmson: It would be sad for the state not to benefit from this technology. It’s been incubated here and grown here. And it’ll be disappointing. As we look at building our business though there’s 49 other states. And so my expectation is as we are able to demonstrate that tech, the benefits of the technology, demonstrate the safety, should AB 316 pass out of the congressional process that ultimately California will want this technology and kind of figure it out. But it’s certainly disappointing given the role that California has played in incubating and developing this technology to see this moving forward.

Lauren Goode: We were having a conversation on my other podcast, Gadget Lab, just last week with my colleague Aarian Marshall who covers the transportation industry. Maybe you’ve spoken to her before. And I asked her, it seems like robotaxis are getting a lot of the attention right now, and it seems like people aren’t talking as much about trucks. Do you expect that Aurora will ever get into robotaxis or robobikes?

Chris Urmson: Robobikes? No. On the other one, we work with Uber and Toyotatoday, and as we’ve designed the Aurora Driver, we’ve really thought of it as a common system to work on both trucks and cars. And it’s literally the same software, literally the same hardware that is on our trucks and is on our cars. We see that transferability and if you come to Texas, you can see our cars driving around. You can see our big 18 wheelers driving around as well.

Lauren Goode: After my Cruise experience, just earlier this week, I’m feeling like, wow, this is really the future. But the autonomous car market has really ebbed and flowed over the past decade or so, and I think that some people are rightfully concerned with the longevity or success of autonomy as a future business. What are your long-term projections for the future of the autonomous vehicle market?

Chris Urmson: If you look at the trucking landscape today, we look out and see a relatively empty playing field that, again, many of the competitors have passed out of existence or are moving out of existence. And we just raised a significant amount of capital, about $853 million from the public markets. And so what we’re doing here seems to be working. That model that we’ve developed, the team that we’ve built, the technology we’re delivering seems to be working well. And so we anticipate, seeing this come to fruition and growing a heck of a business, and doing a whole lot of good in the world.

Lauren Goode: Why do you think there is such a desire for more parts of our society to become autonomous? What is the incentive or the benefit outside of a more capitalistic driven, positive sort of streamlining efficiency, being more productive? Where does this desire to make things autonomous come from?

Chris Urmson: I think it’s much less a desire about making things autonomous and much more about improving quality of life. The freedom and flexibility that’s come from technological advance has been profound. And I think that’s what we’re seeing. And this just happens to be the flavor of technological advance that we’re observing right now, but we just live through a transformational period with the internet and then smartphones. It’s part of that constant march forward of improving quality of life.

Lauren Goode: Do you have any trepidation?

Chris Urmson: About getting in our trucks?

Lauren Goode: Yeah.

Chris Urmson: No.

Lauren Goode: No. OK.

Chris Urmson: We really take developing it safely, seriously. But then certainly right now, as we’re developing it, we have our operators in there, and these are folks that take their job incredibly seriously that we train, that understand their responsibility and just do an amazing job. And so, yeah, I have no trepidation about that at all.

Lauren Goode: What does keep you up at night?

Chris Urmson: I worry about climate change, frankly. I have two college-aged kids at this point and want them to enjoy the quality of life and experiences that I’ve had and hopefully better. And they need to have a healthy planet to be able to do that.

Lauren Goode: Yeah. That’s a whole other podcast, Chris.

Chris Urmson: Yes, indeed.

Lauren Goode: One of the premises of our show is that we talk to people with big, audacious, exciting ideas. We even say this in the beginning of every episode, but sometimes these ideas are also unnerving, And so how often is it that you get to talk to people who are unnerved by your technology, and what do you share with them to try to assuage them?

Chris Urmson: We’re making trucks that drive around the road 70,000 pounds with nobody in them.

Lauren Goode: Right. [Chuckle]

Chris Urmson: It is a very natural thing to have questions. It’s a very natural thing to be concerned about that. And so the opportunity to talk to people and, one, demonstrate the care that we put into doing it. How much thought we’ve put into, how do we know it’s driving well? How do we know it’s gonna fail when things fail, that it’s gonna do so in a way that mitigates the risk from that. Talking about those concrete points, really, I think helps.

Lauren Goode: Chris Urmson, thank you so much for joining me on, Have a Nice Future.

Chris Urmson: Thanks so much for having me. It was great.

Lauren Goode: I hope you have a nice future, a nice self-driving future.

Chris Urmson: You too.


Gideon Lichfield: So Lauren, you made it out of the robotaxi alive?

Lauren Goode: I did. I’m here. I’m back in studio podcasting with you in my comfy chair, which I don’t think is going to autonomously roll across the room anytime soon.

Gideon Lichfield: Great.

Lauren Goode: So I’m curious. After listening to my conversation with Chris, are you feeling more or less confident in the future of autonomous vehicles?

Gideon Lichfield: I wanna get something straight first. You mentioned this bill in California, AB 316 that would require human operators in trucks. So are you telling me that right now in California you can have a truck go down the freeway with nobody at the wheel?

Lauren Goode: No, we are not that lawless. If it’s a vehicle that weighs under 10,000 pounds, which is basically no bigger than a minivan, you can test and operate without a human behind the wheel in California. But autonomous vehicles weighing over 10,000 pounds are banned altogether. So what AB 316 would do is it would let autonomous vehicles over 10,000 pounds operate, but only with a human behind the wheel.

Gideon Lichfield: OK. And a typical truck is how big?

Lauren Goode: Well, a medium duty truck would be between 10,000 and 25,000 pounds. A semi-truck, more than that. The US does have a federal limit though, of 80,000 pounds.

Gideon Lichfield: OK. So the autonomous vehicle industry like Aurora is opposing AB 316 because they want fully autonomous trucks without humans behind the wheel. They want a more liberal form of the law. So where do things stand with this bill right now?

Lauren Goode: I mean, they’re opposing it because the California Department of Motor Vehicles has been looking to introduce a regulatory framework as soon as next year that would allow for more autonomous testing. And the industry then sees this as something that would be a roadblock because it would require that human element. So on the regulatory front, things in California heated up right after we taped this conversation with Chris. California Governor, Gavin Newsom, sided with the robots. He said in late August that he opposes AB 316, which would slow out the rollout of autonomous vehicles across the state.

Gideon Lichfield: In other words, he wants a more liberal law.

Lauren Goode: He wants a more liberal law. Yeah. And this really upset the teamsters, the union folks who are in support of the bill, as well as the Democrats who first presented the bill. People who really want to slow down the autonomous vehicle industry, point to some of San Francisco’s larger issues or past examples of regulatory bodies just not doing enough to govern big tech or labor unrest as reasons why this should not just be unleashed onto the world. But then representatives for the autonomous car industry will say, basically, isn’t California supposed to be this place of innovation? Everyone’s gonna move to Texas, which is what Chris Urmson has done.

Gideon Lichfield: Well, I remember that Arizona was also a state that made very, very liberal laws for testing autonomous vehicles. That was why a lot of the companies moved to Phoenix, and that was why the fatal Uber crash that we wrote about happened in Tempe.

Lauren Goode: That’s right. And you’ll notice that we’re talking about red states and blue states, but folks on the Teamster side will say, this should be bipartisan. Basically, safety and regulatory issues should not be partisan issues. We should really consider, first of all, safety and second of all, jobs.

Gideon Lichfield: Yeah. What do you think about the safety thing? Chris seemed very convinced that self-driving trucks will be safer and maybe he’s right. All you need to do is look around when you’re driving. Everyone’s on their phone all the time, and the one accident that he described was somebody in a car falling asleep at the wheel and hitting one of their autonomous trucks.

Lauren Goode: I also felt pretty convinced by his argument that this could be safer. It doesn’t mean we’re there yet, though. I mean, technologically, it doesn’t seem like we’re there yet, because a week after San Francisco opened up its rules, so a company like Cruise and Waymo could operate their robotaxis 24/7 in San Francisco, they ended up scaling back because there was an accident involving a Cruise car and an emergency vehicle, and it wasn’t the Cruise car’s fault. The Cruise reportedly turned into a lane on a green light and then a firetruck was cruising through, no pun intended on the cruising through, but the San Francisco Fire Department says there have been, at least, I’m going to get the data here, 66 incidents with firetrucks and Cruise cars since May of 2022. And the California DMV just reported that Zoox’s cars, which are owned by Amazon, have crashed 39 times in San Francisco since early 2022. Across the state of California, Waymo’s collisions make up the majority of crashes, 110 crashes, and Cruise has recorded 64. I wouldn’t attempt to do any back of the envelope math to try to figure out how this compares to our everyday car crashes because these are really serious numbers to consider, but these crashes with self-driving cars are not nothing, and they tend to get a lot of attention because it’s a totally driver-free car cruising around your city.

Gideon Lichfield: Well, that is the big problem. I mean, you have to feel a little bit of sympathy for the self-driving car companies because even if indeed they are safer, every single accident is going to get poured over in extremely fine detail. And maybe it’s just a matter of time before people get more comfortable with self-driving cars and accept that there is going to be an accident rate, albeit a lower one than with human operated cars because we’ve become obviously very blase about the fact that thousands of people die on the road every single month in cars driven by humans. I think maybe part of what makes autonomous vehicles scary is that there is still that element of mystery. We can’t quite know why they did what they did, why they crashed when they crashed, and we kid ourselves that if it’s a human behind the wheel, we can know somehow what might’ve gone wrong or we can imagine how we might’ve avoided that situation if we were driving ourselves. And it’s that illusion of agency I think that allows us to feel safer. Whereas with a robot vehicle, we don’t quite know what’s going on in its robot brain.

Lauren Goode: I have to say that where I land, despite finding the driver free rides quite fun and thrilling, I’m still in favor of all of this slowing down a bit.

Gideon Lichfield: What would make you feel safer then?

Lauren Goode: That’s a really good question, and I’m not totally sure because I’m not sure that it’s a specific element of the technology that I could name right now or any kind of number of vehicles on the road here in San Francisco where I see them every single day now. I don’t know if that would necessarily make me feel better about it as much as it is the idea that our governing bodies really are looking out for the best interests of citizens and not necessarily being swayed by big tech. There is incredible innovation here in California. There’s incredible innovation in Silicon Valley. This is what we cover. I mean, this stuff is literally going to change the world, I think, but I don’t necessarily know if that has to happen as quickly as it’s happening until we’ve considered all of the implications and really carefully considered the regulatory framework for this.

Gideon Lichfield: Yeah, I think I agree with you and not because I think self-driving cars are necessarily more dangerous than we’re being told. I suspect they’re probably safer in the end. I think the problem again is knowing what went wrong when it went wrong and who’s liable, and the problem of liability and responsibility is still really fuzzy when it’s a robot driver. That was clear in the case of the fatal Uber self-driving crash that we wrote about, and right now there doesn’t seem to be a clear framework for deciding who is in the wrong if a crash happens between a human-driven car and a self-driving car where the self-driving car seems to have made a mistake. So until those issues are resolved, I think the rollout of self-driving cars is going to continue to be pretty slow.

Lauren Goode: So what you’re saying is the next time you’re in San Francisco, you’d rather have a human Lauren giving you a lift somewhere, checking my slack all along the way, every red light.

Gideon Lichfield: I mean, you might be a bigger risk to my life than a self-driving car, but you’re a better conversationalist.

Lauren Goode: Not the first time I’ve heard that line.

Gideon Lichfield: [Laughter] That’s our show for today. Thank you for listening. Have a Nice Future is hosted by me, Gideon Lichfield.

Lauren Goode: And me, Lauren Goode. If you like the show, you should tell us, leave us a rating and a review wherever you get your podcasts, and don’t forget to subscribe so you can get new episodes each week.

Gideon Lichfield: You can also email us on [email protected]. Tell us what you’re worried about, what excites you, any questions you have about the future, and we’ll try to answer them with our guests.

Lauren Goode: Have a Nice Future is a production of Condé Nast Entertainment. Danielle Hewitt from Prologue Projects produces the show. Our assistant producer is Arlene Revelo.

Gideon Lichfield: See you back here next Wednesday and until then, have a nice future.