Are American Roads Ready for Level 4 Autonomous Commercial Trucks?

a large truck parked outside a building
Are Autonomous Trucks Just around the Corner?Aurora Innovation
  • Autonomous truck developer Aurora Innovation is preparing a driverless truck route between Houston and Dallas, slated to open in 2024, and has opened a special lane that will be used by the trucks.

  • The SAE Level 4 semitrucks are designed to operate between warehouses in the two cities, with Aurora having already launched pilot operations with a number of commercial partners.

  • The company has designed special cargo terminals to work with autonomous trucks, maximizing their time on the road, including on-site weight stations allowing trucks to skip inspection sites along highways.

Until a few years ago, driverless trucks seemed like something out of sci fi film set in the year 2050.

Even when robotaxis began crowding San Francisco, the concept of self-driving trucks still seemed fairly distant, if only because the bureaucratic hurdles necessary to make something like that happen seemed more insurmountable than setting robotaxis loose in the confines of the Bay Area, even as Gatik's "middle mile" trucks performed real cargo runs in Kansas.

But it appears we are now just months away from self-driving semitrucks hitting the road. And they will even have their own special lanes.

Aurora Innovation says it has opened the first driverless truck lane between Dallas and Houston, in one of the busiest commercial routes in the southwest. The company has also prepared one other crucial piece of infrastructure required to make this work at scale: Commercially ready terminals for autonomous trucks.

"Opening a driverless trucking lane flanked by commercially ready terminals is an industry-first that unlocks our ability to launch our driverless trucking product," said Sterling Anderson, Co-Founder and Chief Product Officer at Aurora.

The trucks themselves will be SAE Level 4 vehicles, able to operate in a geofenced area and travel along a thoroughly mapped and predictable route. This makes them similar in many respects to robotaxis, which are also SAE Level 4 vehicles, but operate along far more fluid routes while still being confined to a given number of neighborhoods. The trucks themselves will be confined to using designated lanes.

More than simply outfitting semitrucks with sensors, Aurora has designed a terminal blueprint intended to maximize the amount of time the trucks spend on the road, with on-site weight stations allowing trucks to skip inspection points on the road.

"The ability to service and support driverless trucks 24/7/365 is critical to launching a valuable product that can handle dynamic demand," the company notes.

Without the special infrastructure, the concept would not be ready for a commercial rollout.

A major part of the commercially ready terminals are Aurora's command centers, staffed with remote specialists who will oversee around-the-clock operations. The command centers will also house dispatchers who will allocate and schedule the trucks and trailers.

torc self driving truck
Torc Robotics, a unit of Daimler Truck, is another Level 4 hopeful and has been testing its trucks on the road starting this year.Smith Collection/Gado - Getty Images

Working with pilot customers, Aurora is already transporting 50 loads a week in Texas, but in late 2024 the autonomous tech developer plans to launch commercial operations between Houston and Dallas, with the route running along I-45.

"With this corridor's launch, we've defined, refined, and validated the framework for the expansion of our network with the largest partner ecosystem in the autonomous trucking industry," Anderson added.

Perhaps the most unexpected aspect of the evolution of autonomous tech when it comes to trucks, is that SAE Level 2 and Level 3 systems never really arrived for trucks.

A decade ago the industry was hopeful that radar and lidar sensors might give human drivers the ability to take their hands off the steering wheel and eyes off the road for extended periods of time. But given the 50-plus jurisdictions involved, the regulatory and commercial production of these systems never really made it into semitrucks.

Instead, the autonomous trucking industry skipped entirely to Level 4, which for the longest time appeared to be largely useful for robotaxis, at least as investors and ride-hailing developers hoped. However, seeing actual profits from Level 4 tech in the robotaxi industry sometime in the next decade is now a shakier proposition than it may have seemed a couple years ago, when Level 4 tech was thought to have been largely figured out in given cities.

Instead, robotaxi developers have "invested" billions in the tech, funded by large corporations and investors, with little light at the end of the tunnel.

In effect, solving the tech needed for Level 4 robotaxis now appears to have been the easy part—making robotaxis profitable now seems to be the more difficult task.

This is where the autonomous trucking industry hopes to distinguish itself.

Autonomous vehicle skeptics point out that in both cases, with robotaxis and trucks, the autonomous tech replaces one type of human job with another, higher-skilled and higher-paid job, but the vehicles are now much more complex and more expensive, all for the sake of not having a human behind the wheel.

This makes autonomous vehicle operations seem like a very expensive Rube Goldberg device, skeptics say, existing mostly for the benefit of companies that sell and service autonomous vehicle tech, with those costs still carried by the fleet operators.

Labor unions argue that such a transition to self-driving cars and trucks won't even produce cost savings for the industry until some undefined point in the distant future, if ever, due to the expenses and new infrastructure associated with the tech.

Will we see driverless trucks begin to displace human drivers in this decade, or will this process take longer to materialize? Let us know what you think.