COLLEGE STATION, Texas — The future of trucking is taking shape in Texas right now as self-driving big rigs are being tested on highways.
The technology is being developed at Texas A&M University.
Trucking in Texas is big business and it's only getting bigger. The truck drivers will look much different in the years to come as the Lone Star State is at the epicenter of self-driving semis.
"If you really, finally want to put these autonomous trucks (on the road) ... they have to pass through Texas," Dr. Srikhanth Saripalli said.
Saripalli is the program director at TAMU, which has one of the top autonomy programs in the country. The program is now part of one of the hottest races in the world after teaming up with Embark Trucking to change the future of ground transport.
"Embark comes in and says, 'Wow, you guys really have everything needed to test autonomy,'" Saripalli said.
In their labs, Saripalli and students develop lidar technology equipped with world-class sensors, cameras and GPS antennas, which are all needed for full autonomy.
"All of that happens here. So you develop all of those programs. Then you go out to the test track and test it safely," Saripalli said.
Eleven miles away from main campus is an innovation proving ground. The 3,000-acre facility is there solely for testing autonomous technology.
"This is one-of-a-kind in the United States, if not the world," Saripalli said.
So, why are the self-driving companies flocking to Texas?
"Because we believe autonomous vehicles are the future, so Texas is very, very autonomous-friendly," Saripalli said. "Given the shortages in truck drivers and well as the current supply chain issues and trying to get things faster and quicker everywhere autonomous trucking makes perfect sense."
Saripalli said those are just a pair of factors fueling the industry's shift into futuristic overdrive.
"You want autonomous vehicles to take over the dull, dirty, dangerous jobs. The boring jobs," Saripalli said.
In 2017, the Texas Legislature passed laws allowing autonomous vehicles to operate on Texas roads, baiting driverless car companies to the Lone Star State. Aurora and Waymo have already launched truck test routes on I-45 from Dallas to Houston.
Saripalli said safety is the top priority. He said the goal is for self-driving semis to be as good of drivers as humans, or better -- because they wouldn't deal with any distractions. As for a timetable, experts say full autonomy on the roads is still a couple of years away.
TAMU and its three self-driving semis are doing their part to make sure the industry's shift is a safe one.
"At A&M, we want to make sure we are testing and developing algorithms that make autonomous trucking safe," Saripalli said.