Halfway up the ramp from downtown Albuquerque, the 18-year trucking veteran presses a button. The overhead ambient lighting in the cab turns a soft blue as the system from Torc Robotics takes over. The truck signals and pulls into its lane. A nearby monitor shows the world the truck “sees” through its array of cameras, mapping software, radar and laser-precise lidar.
Next to Norero, safety conductor Garen Head looks at his laptop and glances at the mirrors and an instrument display as the truck merges onto I-40 eastbound, targets another lane change and slides into position. Though other drivers can’t see it, the top of the truck’s trailer proclaims its independence to those above: “AUTONOMOUS.”
Within eight years, Torc executives say, they expect their trucks to be able to make this drive alone. Not just this 45-mile journalistic jaunt, but real over-the-road, long-haul trucking.
True driverless vehicles are, so far, an unfulfilled dream. The technology promises not only a more relaxing commute or road trip, but life-saving safety improvements and money-saving efficiency.
“We truly believe it will be within the decade,” says Torc Chief Strategy Officer Andrew Culhane. “But ultimately, safety dictates the timeline.”
Roughly 5,000 people die every year in crashes involving large trucks, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. More than 30 times that number are hurt. While professional truckers tend to be safer than other drivers, long-haul truckers in particular log so many miles that the numbers often catch up to them.
Spurred by the promise of improving on those safety numbers and pulled along by the potential for handsome profits, Torc sends a small fleet of trucks each day from an old Dodge dealership off Lomas Boulevard in Albuquerque onto two nearby interstates to test its driverless technology.
While a driver and safety conductor are on board every trip, the truck is doing most of the driving. Norero and Head, for example, are working to check autonomous software observations that neither man could make on his own and both can only approximate together.
“Our sensors are looking in all directions at all times, so we never have to glance left or glance right. We’re seeing and understanding that world every time we’re going down the road,” explains Culhane.
Torc’s testing measures what the company’s algorithm does with all that data. While the basics of accelerating, braking and changing lanes are straightforward, the act of driving is surprisingly complex.
Human beings might not be great at judging distance or speed, but they can process a lot of information at once – sometimes communicating with other drivers using only a glance – and quickly decide how to act.
The autonomous truck is not human and can’t pick up on some of that nuance, but it is exceedingly polite.
“It doesn’t know how to run up close to somebody, it doesn’t know how to forget to pay attention, it doesn’t ever forget what the safe distance is, it doesn’t ever forget to look over the shoulder,” says program manager Walter Grigg. “There’s no human factor. So there’s no discussion of impatience. It doesn’t feel like it needs to pass for no reason.”
Part of that equation is the time made up over 2,000-mile drives when an autonomous truck isn’t stopping for food, rest or the bathroom. It can, quite literally, keep on trucking. Not speeding, creating more following distance, and avoiding impatient moves keeps the truck out of the places on the road where accidents happen more frequently.
With an estimated 80,000-driver deficit according to the American Trucking Association, Torc doesn’t believe its technology will displace any drivers. Finding long-haulers to stay on the road for weeks at a time is increasingly hard. The ATA’s estimates mean that by the time Torc thinks it will make good on its road worthiness, there could be more than 160,000 thousand vacancies.
That promise has pushed driverless technology away from cars toward the smaller, but profitable freight industry, says the Texas A&M Transportation Institute’s Allan Rutter.
“Given the way that the supply chain is working right now and freight rates, there’s an awful lot of financial incentive to see about making this work,” he says.
While Torc and Daimler Trucks (its majority stake holder as of 2019) are focused on building trucks like the Freightliner Cascadia with driverless technology from the ground up to be used without a human on board from day one, Rutter thinks an intermediate step is likely.
“If you can find a way of extending the effective hours of service for a safety driver in an automated truck more than that 11 hours [allowed by federal regulations],” says Rutter, there is still money to be saved.
“That active driving experience is pretty high-stress even if you’re over-the-road, going a long distance on a fairly boring road. You’ve still got a lot of vehicle to control and you’ve got to be aware of where you are and what’s going on around you,” he says. Giving a driver a break while autonomous technology takes over could mean more miles traveled, more safely.
But public perception may be a bigger hurdle than technology, Rutter explains.
“It’s a matter of governments and it’s a matter of other people,” he says. “If you’re on I-40 traveling to Phoenix or somewhere in Arizona, and you’re in there with your family, are you comfortable with the truck that’s next to you and that you’re trying to pass not having a driver at all? So I think part of it is going to be public acceptance.”
For Torc, public acceptance is part of the reason it’s testing the same routes around Albuquerque each day. The company has amassed a huge database of road information and is now looking for “corner” or “edge” occurrences to gauge what the truck decides is the best course if, for example, there’s a pedestrian – even a horse, Torc’s Culhane muses – on the highway.
“Oddly enough, pedestrians on the highway create some of the more interesting situations, as you can imagine,” he says. “And everything from the trucks that you might see with tarps blowing around to things falling off trucks; those all happen quite naturally. We just take enough laps to make sure we see them.”
The company’s model isn’t for dock-to-dock trucking. Instead, it plans to use a series of shipping hubs to let autonomous trucks drop off and pick up trailers just outside of busier urban areas. Human drivers will take over from there as other logistics workers service the truck and coordinate the next long-haul trip.
For now, test runs are the order of the day. The company is working to find reliable computing power that can fit two-times-over into a cab (for redundancy’s sake). During a recent outing, as the truck returns from the mountains east of Albuquerque along I-40, the autonomous system beeps twice and shuts itself off.
Hands already on the wheel, Norero seamlessly begins driving as safety conductor Head taps away at his laptop, already communicating with mission control back at the old dealership. More data to crunch, more food for the algorithm.