FORT WORTH, Texas, June 17 (Reuters) – For companies scrambling to make self-driving trucks a near-term reality, all roads lead to Texas.
Vast freeways, a booming freight market, and most importantly, the least restrictive autonomous vehicle (AV) laws in the United States have made Texas the most desirable location for the industry.
Several companies, including Aurora Innovation (AUR.O) and TuSimple (TSP.O), plan to deploy fully driverless trucks on Texas highways next year, moving away from current tests that include safety drivers from driving assistance.
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While limited driverless testing with 18-wheelers has taken place in Arizona, a launch in Texas would mark the first commercial use. Alphabet’s Waymo Via (GOOGL.O) and pickup truck startup Gatik, which counts Wal-Mart (WMT.N) as a customer, are setting up hubs there in preparation.
Companies have invested billions of dollars in developing the technology they say will increase road safety and reduce truck driver shortages. The self-driving truck industry in the United States is expected to grow rapidly over the next decade, with analysts estimating its size between $250 billion and $400 billion by 2030.
Darran Anderson, director of innovation at the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), said the state decided to pursue a collaborative approach with industry.
But security advocates are worried.
“The hasty commercialization of this technology using regular drivers as beta testers in real-world driving conditions potentially puts everyone at risk,” said Ware Wendel, executive director of consumer advocate Texas Watch.
The Texas Department of Public Safety, which regulates audio-visual vehicles, did not respond to a request for comment.
Texas in 2017 passed its autonomous vehicle bill allowing the testing and deployment of driverless vehicles without the need for special registration, data sharing or additional insurance requirements. The law also prevents local cities from imposing additional requirements.
The industry is using the bill as a model when lobbying other states to regulate self-driving vehicles, a Gatik executive and safety researchers said.
Security advocates warn that companies are trying to pit states against each other by threatening to shift jobs to more favorable regulatory environments.
The companies say safety is their top priority and that testing on public roads allows them to refine and evolve their technology under real-world conditions.
There are no known cases of crashes caused by self-driving vehicles in Texas, but the state leads the United States in fatal truck crashes each year, according to data from the US Department of Transportation (DOT). .
Texas has some of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the country as well as several ports of entry from Mexico. It’s also in the middle of one of America’s busiest freight routes, Atlanta-Los Angeles, which moves more than 8,500 trucks a day, according to the US DOT. Autonomous companies hope to automate many of these highways.
Real estate developer Hillwood’s sprawling AllianceTexas logistics zone near Fort Worth, which includes a cargo airport, rail yard and extensive regional hubs of Amazon.com (AMZN.O), FedEx (FDX.N) and UPS (UPS.N), hopes to attract more AV trucking.
TuSimple and Gatik have hubs in the 27,000 acre complex. Hillwood is creating robot-friendly infrastructure by minimizing left turns that are more complex because they cut through traffic, installing 5G networks and building AV-specific warehouse docks, said Ian Kinne, director of logistics innovation of Hillwood.
For trucking companies, Texas’ collaborative regulatory regime is a big part of its appeal.
“There are other states that have really good ports or connections, but they don’t have the same regulatory environment as Texas,” said Aidan Ali-Sullivan, head of state policy at Waymo.
With federal AV regulations stalled for several years, it was left to individual states to determine policies.
Chart on US AV regulations: https://tmsnrt.rs/3NTJMFo
Waymo, Aurora, TuSimple and Gatik said they are in constant contact with Texas state and local authorities.
“The state does not take a laissez-faire approach to the operation of these vehicles, they must comply with the rules of the road,” said TxDOT’s Anderson.
The state created an industry task force of some 200 members, including audiovisual companies, automakers, researchers and regulators, with the goal of preparing Texas for autonomous vehicles.
The industry has lobbied other states such as Kansas, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania to copy this approach.
“It’s a well-structured model and approach that other states can adopt,” said Richard Steiner, Gatik’s chief policy officer.
Kansas signed its own bill last month. The governor’s office could not be reached for comment. Read more
Carnegie Mellon engineering professor Phil Koopman, who follows AV regulations, opposed the bills in Kansas and Pennsylvania.
“Even if (companies) have the best intentions, they face unimaginable economic pressure to cut corners,” he said.
Greg Winfree, agency director of the Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University, said he saw no indication that the companies were deploying their technology irresponsibly.
Winfree, who is also part of the state-run AV task force, is currently working on campaigns to educate Texans about the technology that will soon be among them.
“We need to get to a point where seeing an autonomous vehicle is not cause for alarm, or photo-shooting and filming,” he said.
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Reporting by Tina Bellon in Fort Worth, Texas; edited by Ben Klayman, Elaine Hardcastle
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