Self-driving semi trucks may be coming to a highway near you

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — A self-driving vehicle company started testing autonomous long-haul trucks on Texas roads this week.

Waymo, a subsidiary of Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc., will roll out the trucks on several highways, including Interstates 10, 20 and 45.

It’s not clear whether drivers will ever see the semis on I-35.

The company is also rolling out the trucks in New Mexico, and will use the testing period to “[map] the interesting and promising commercial route between the states.” There will always be a driver in the truck during the tests, a Waymo spokesperson said.

Since 2017, the company says, it’s tested the self-driving trucks in California, Georgia and Arizona.

Waymo’s self-driving truck. (Photo Courtesy: Waymo)

Trucker concerns

Massaer Diagne, a truck driver from San Antonio, told KXAN at a pit stop in Austin that he’s concerned about possibly being on the road with a self-driving truck because it might not share the same instincts as a seasoned trucker.

“They’re not going to necessarily react like a human being,” he said. ‘They will react according to a program.”

Driving since 2012, Diagne now has a regular route from Laredo to Dallas and back, typically on the road for a few days at a time. He doesn’t worry too much about losing his job to a robot, but “it’s a concern. I guess you wonder what’s going to happen.”

John D. Esparza, president and CEO of the Texas Trucking Association, hears that a lot from the organization’s tens of thousands of members. But Esparza, whose family’s trucking history dates back to the 1920s, said technological change has been a constant in the industry.

“Automated trucking is a great buzzword,” he explained, “but it is driver-assisted trucking.”

Contrary to hurting the trucking business in Texas and across the U.S., he believes it will ultimately help, because it will make the roads safer. An autonomous truck, outfitted with an array of sensors, can perceive a lot more at once than a human can.

Plus, he doesn’t think the driver will leave the cab entirely, at least not for a couple more generations.

“I can’t foresee a time in the immediate future, and even the distant future where that’s the case,” Esparza said.

Like airplanes, even extensive automated systems don’t eliminate the comfort of having a pilot. “The technology’s here; it’s just a matter of the level of acceptance and the level of safety.”

The future of autonomous trucks

While it’s not likely Waymo’s trucks will be widely tested along the I-35 corridor in central Texas, Esparza said they’ll have to do it sooner or later.

A congested, delay-prone interstate will present different challenges from the rural sections of I-10.

Waymo’s self-driving truck next to its self-driving van, which the company is also testing in Texas. (Photo Courtesy: Waymo)

“You lose time every time you have to go through Austin and the construction in Waco,” Diagne said. After a few years working very long hauls and behind the wheel of oil tankers, his entire route now is on I-35 — lucky guy.

He worries the growth of self-driving trucks will make jobs like his harder to come by, but he still feels secure in the job he has.

“I just don’t see it taking over the entire business in about five, ten years,” he said.

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