July 10, 2022

Why Fort Worth and North Texas is a hub for autonomous trucking

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ITS ConGlobal is using a truck that can be controlled remotely, without a driver in the seat. It's one of many companies in AllianceTexas and Fort Worth that is testing technology that drives vehicles without a driver in the front seat.

In a shipping container yard at the AllianceTexas Mobility Innovation Zone, a semi-truck moves around the yard. The steering wheel is turning. The wheels are moving. But there is no driver — at least not inside the truck.

Instead, an ITS ConGlobal employee is driving the truck from behind a computer, using a steering wheel that looks like a video game controller.

The company, which has a shipping container yard and offices in the north Fort Worth Alliance business district, is partnering with San Francisco-based tech company Phantom Auto to test the technology. And the company has 10 more trucks on the way, said Wendy Hannon, a spokesperson for the company. It currently has one truck.

“We just have to wait in line until we can get our next round of vehicles,” Hannon said.

Companies are flocking to North Texas, known as a major freight and logistics hub, to test and use technology that drives trucks without a driver in the seat, whether that’s with a remote driver or completely without one.

Autonomous vehicle company Gatik is starting to use its autonomous box trucks to complete deliveries to Sam’s Clubs across the Dallas-Fort Worth area. The company operates out of AllianceTexas MIZ. Another company, Aurora Innovation Inc. is collaborating with Werner to launch a 600-mile autonomous truck route from Fort Worth to El Paso. Alphabet’s Waymo recently opened a hub that will operate 20 autonomous trucks in Lancaster and plans to add a self-driving route between Fort Worth and Houston.

Among the reasons the companies are coming to the region is the state’s regulations that incentivize and support the industry.  The Texas Legislature passed Senate Bill 2205 in 2017, which allows automated vehicles to legally use the state’s highways if they are insured and equipped with video recording equipment.

Many states across the country have some form of regulation on self-driving vehicles, but how restrictive or loose the laws are vary, according to reporting.

Ian Kinne, director of logistics innovation at Hillwood, said Alliance started with autonomous vehicles about five years ago at Frisco Station with Drive.Ai. But they quickly realized that the self-driving industry would be fueled not so much by vehicles holding people, but vehicles moving freight. That might be because people are still hesitant to get into self-driving cars, Kinne said.

“We don’t really care how my water bottle got here; the water bottle’s here,” Kinne said. “But maybe we’re not ready to get to the autonomous vehicle ourselves.”

According to a survey by the American Automotive Association in January 2021, 24% of drivers would trust a car that would drive itself. But 86% said they would be afraid or unsure about riding in a self-driving vehicle, according to previous Fort Worth Report reporting.

Vehicle makers reported nearly 400 vehicle crashes from July 2021 through May 15 with partially automated driver assistance systems, 273 of which involved Teslas, according to reports.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration updated rules to report crashes with advanced driver assistance systems to the agency. The agency also says vehicles made with these systems have to meet the same levels of protection that passenger-operated vehicles do.

John Samuelsen, international president of the Transport Workers Union, which represents 155,000 members across transit, rail, and airline sectors said unproven and unregulated technology can be prone to stopping unexpectedly, crashes and malfunctions that could injure people.

“We believe that whether they are carrying passengers or cargo, any commercial vehicle must be overseen by a human operator no matter the level of automation,” Samuelsen said in a statement. “This is the same approach taken in aviation and on railroads – both of which are much more automated than what we’re talking about for trucks and buses. When autonomous systems fail, trained, qualified workers have to be able to take over or there will be tragedies.”

The technology is still being tested with drivers behind the wheel, and Kinne estimates that the freight vehicles could go fully autonomous as early as 2025.

Why is a real estate company like Hillwood’s Alliance hosting hubs for self-driving vehicles? Kinne said it comes down to thinking about the future.

“You look back at the Perot legacy, and it’s very much an innovation-first focused business,” Kinne said. “And so I think we’re looking at things that might disrupt our business over time. We certainly believe this is one of the impacts of that.”

With the trucking industry going through a serious labor shortage, companies like ITS ConGlobal believe bringing automation into the mix and putting drivers behind a computer could open up the labor pool.

Hannon said it’s more difficult to recruit new employees to drive freight. Remote driving in an office might open up the pool to people who might be unable to work outside, too, she said.

“If you’re in the production environment, that’s not a possibility because you’re having to get in and out of equipment on your own and sometimes that might not be possible if you have a disability,” Hannon said.

Brett Rogers, vice president of advanced solutions at ITS ConGlobal, said automation also creates the ability to manage trucks across different locations with remote drivers.

“If you switch the assets, and no longer require a person to sit in that vehicle, but now I can control an asset in Chicago and then control an asset that’s down in Texas all from one location, I can optimize how and when I use and operate those assets,” Rogers said.

Rogers said the industry for fully autonomous semi-trucks going on highways is consolidated, and there’s a growing demand for technology for the freight yards and logistics. The solution also reduces risk, he said.

“So you can think about all of the ‘what if’ scenarios that you might experience from an autonomous car driving down the highway,” Rogers said. “You can constrain some of those unknowns a little bit more in these industrial-type sectors.”

Tom Bamonte, senior program manager for transportation technology and innovation at the North Central Texas Council of Governments, said the council’s policy board approved $5 million in funding for an automated vehicle truck port near Interstate 35 West, which would feature a customized parking lot designed to support the autonomous vehicle industry.

The council is also working on a $4.5 million project to help the vehicles get through intersections without having to stop. Another proposal in the works would support 911 call centers in improving emergency response to crashes.

People like Bamonte believe trucking companies are moving very carefully before going fully autonomous, without drivers behind the wheel. 

“All of their deployments currently are with safety drivers, as well as remote supervision,” Bamonte said. “So there’s a high level of caution in terms of rolling out automated vehicles.”

People who are keeping an eye on the industry like Kinne believe trucks will be on the road without drivers in a matter of years, but it could take many more years for the industry to become widespread.

“I think the question is, in 2025, will it be widespread? No,” Kinne said. “Will there be certain lanes where this is becoming adopted, like Oklahoma City? Like El Paso? Yes. But I think the reality of it is … you can’t manufacture enough trucks just to fill those lanes right now. So there will be a gap and then an overall integration of the supply chain over time.”