Tuesday, May 21, 2024 May 21, 2024
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Robot Trucks Are Among Us

Dallas is the nation's hub of autonomous tractor-trailor testing thanks to good weather and high freight traffic.
| |Illustration by James Steinberg
Robot truck driving
Your Ikea sofa may have arrived via robot. James Steinberg

One day very soon, you’ll be driving down the highway and see an 80,000-pound big rig in your rearview mirror. It won’t have a human driver on board. Don’t worry, though. Its computer system saw you from four football fields away, and it won’t be angry with you for driving 10 mph under the speed limit because you were fiddling with your Whataburger.

Autonomous trucks make sense. They don’t get tired or distracted, and there’s a shortage of human drivers. And Dallas makes sense as a testing ground because we sit at one vertex of the Texas Triangle (including Houston and San Antonio), through which 15 percent of all the nation’s freight moves. Plus our weather is generally good, and state law allows vehicles without a “human operator.” Kodiak Robotics operates a hub in Lancaster and hauls for Ikea; Gatik transports for Kroger and Sam’s Club; and Aurora Innovation, with a market cap of nearly $4 billion, moves freight for pilot customers such as FedEx out of Palmer, Texas, just south of Dallas. The company calls Palmer the “first automatic truck hub on the planet.” Right now, Aurora’s trucks use onboard safety humans to back up the robot driver, but the company plans to go full auto later this year. 

Are we all going to die? Probably not. But at least one litigator is keeping an eye on the robots. Amy Witherite is a Dallas lawyer who runs one of the largest woman-owned personal injury firms in the country. You know it as 1-800-TruckWreck. “We’ve been looking at it pretty intently for the past five years, anything dealing with autonomous vehicles,” Witherite says. “Anyone who wants to continue to do trucking [personal injury] work needs to be responsible in educating and training their staff. And you’ve just got to go the extra step to learn this—what will be a new area of law and a new area of practice.”

She says a weather event “will be a wake-up call to all of us. Some ice storm, some big hurricane hits Houston, and you’re trying to get your trucks out before the hurricane hits, but the weather is already coming in, and you’ve got lots of rain. How are these vehicles going to operate? I think we’re going to see them all over our roadways, impeding other people’s travel.”

Till then, keep your hands at 10 and 2, and leave the burger for later. You’re the dangerous one on the road. 

This story originally appeared in the April issue of D Magazine. Write to [email protected].


Micaih Thomas

Micaih Thomas

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