Driverless semis in Arizona navigate open roads, vague statutes, tumultuous industry

By: - September 4, 2019 12:37 pm
TuSimple Truck

A TuSimple self-driving truck. Photo by TuSimple.

Automated semi-trucks are a fairly new development in Arizona. 

They’ve been operating in the state for just about a year, but the technology is already having major impacts, despite the law moving at a vastly different pace than the computerized 18-wheelers currently making trips between Tucson and Phoenix

“If we can’t get these vehicles to cross state lines, then we have a problem,” K. Larry Head, a professor at the University of Arizona and a member of the state’s Self-Driving Vehicle Oversight Committee, said. 

Last month, self-driving semi-truck start-up TuSimple announced it will begin delivering mail from Phoenix to Dallas, a 1,000-mile trip as part of a partnership with UPS. 

Since May, autonomous TuSimple trucks have already been making a 115-mile journey on Interstate 10 between Tucson and Phoenix delivering mail. On Aug. 15, UPS’s venture capital arm announced it was making an investment in the company.

“Interstate commerce is a key to our future business success,” Robert Brown, director of public affairs for TuSimple, told Arizona Mirror. Brown was in Ohio to attend a conference at which speakers would be discussing, among other things, how local traffic infrastructure and laws needed to catch up with the technology being used by companies like TuSimple. 

But driving automated semi-trucks across state lines isn’t as easy as it might sound. 

Only 20 states currently allow for open operations of level 4 automated technologies like the kind that make up TuSimple’s fleet of trucks. An additional 18 allow only testing. 

Then add on fears that already exist around self-driving vehicles and an industry that is fighting over if there is or isn’t a shortage of drivers, and it makes for rough roads ahead. 

Differing laws 

As anyone who has lived in Arizona long enough knows, it is a state of transplants. 

Many people move to the state from all over the country for one of the state’s five C’s, climate

With that can come some confusion for new drivers who hail from states who may have more unique traffic laws, like for example, Michigan. 

In Michigan, left turns can be a challenge. Drivers wishing to turn left onto divided highways must make a right and then make a special u-turn in order to turn left in what is called a “Michigan left.”

It’s these types of odd differences state by state that can cause trouble down the line for self-driving vehicles and trucks. 

It’s also what makes what TuSimple and self-driving trucks so unique, as for the most part they don’t have to interact with these types of restrictions. 

Companies like Waymo and Uber often have to map out entire cities before their vehicles can begin testing, and programs have to be written to help the vehicles’ computers understand local traffic laws. But highways are generally straight lines with few restrictions, according to Head. 

This has made the transition from moving mail between Phoenix and Tucson to moving mail from Phoenix to Dallas a less daunting reality, Brown said. 

However, some fears remain. 

Currently, New Mexico and Texas have hardly any restrictions or guidelines in place, and Arizona is the only state that has asked much of anything from the company, according to Brown. 

“We don’t like to surprise anyone,” Brown said, adding that New Mexico and Texas took a “just keep us informed approach,” whereas Arizona had a “list” of things to do, including meeting with the Arizona Department of Public Safety, the Arizona Department of Transportation, the Tucson Police Department and U.S. Customs and Border Protection. 

In 2015, the Arizona Legislature began looking into legislation to regulate autonomous vehicles, but instead took a wait-and-see approach. Gov. Doug Ducey signed an executive order on the issue that created the Self-Driving Oversight Committee. 

The order allows for testing of self-driving cars in Arizona and created the committee to advise state agencies on “how best to advance the testing operation of self-driving vehicles on public roads.” 

But the first meeting of the Arizona Self-Driving Vehicle Oversight Committee in 2016 has been its only meeting. 

The vehicles may be advancing at a fast pace and TuSimple is aiming to have fully autonomous trucks on Arizona roads by 2021, but only time will tell how lawmakers will react

For Head, there are still a lot of unanswered questions that will need to be addressed in the future. 

“If one gets pulled over, who gets a ticket? Can grandma just put the kids in a car and let it go? There’s still a lot to know,” Head said. 

Meanwhile, the industry is watching closely. 

The first class

The semi-trucks TuSimple is using won’t be entirely driverless, at least for the foreseeable future, because the law won’t allow truly autonomous vehicles to operate on the roads. But the technology is not going to go away, as other companies move into the automated trucking space. 

This means that both current and future truck drivers are going to need to learn a whole new set of skills that previous drivers never needed. 

Enter Pima Community College

The college, along with TuSimple, have partnered to offer a first-of-its-kind program: an automated truck driving course that will offer a certificate for students to show future employers that they have the knowledge of not just trucking, but what the future of trucking holds. 

“Our goal is to keep truck drivers as relevant as long as we can,” Missy Blair, program manager for PCC’s Center for Transportation Training, told the Mirror. “There’s a lot of fear.” 

For Blair and her colleagues, it’s about getting ahead of a fast-moving tech industry. 

The World Economic Forum released a report in 2016 stating that 65 percent of children entering the first grade today will end up working jobs that do not exist today

“We’re basically creating a program for a job that doesn’t exist,” Blair said. The first class starts this month. Only four people are officially signed up, but more than 40 have expressed interest in the class, Blair said. 

What makes the class different than your average trucking class is the new additions that your average trucker wouldn’t generally get: a logistics class, computer classes, electronic systems classes and even a history class on automated vehicles and how the different types function. 

The TuSimple trucks come with a variety of new technologies that truckers will need to learn how to use. They’ll need to know how to identify circuit breakers and electrical components, and even perform simple repairs, Blair said. 

It’s partially about helping drivers learn how to “speak the language” of automated vehicles so they don’t get left behind by the changes that will be coming. 

It’s also about “upscaling,” Blair said, as the class teaches some advanced electrical knowledge, meaning that if that person wanted to later learn to be an electrician, a job that often pays more, they’d have the knowledge base to pursue that career. 

The course will also teach drivers about something that they may not have anticipated – additional safety. 

Residents in Chandler have not been incredibly welcoming of Waymo’s self-driving cars on their streets. Some have gone as far as to pull guns on them

So, part of Pima Community College’s course will teach drivers how to handle themselves in a situation where they may be being bullied by someone who is upset at the driverless truck. 

Much like the drivers, Blair herself was hesitant of the advancements. 

“I was skeptical at first,” Blair said, adding that meeting TuSimple officials at a conference helped change her mind. “Nothing good comes out of it if we are at odds with each other.” 

The program was recently approved to get funding through the Arizona@Work program, meaning that grant funding is available to those who qualify. 

Students must have a Commercial Drivers License to earn the certificate, but anyone can take individual classes. 

“I don’t look at it as being a threat to drivers, I see it as being an opportunity to drivers,” Blair said. 

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Jerod MacDonald-Evoy
Jerod MacDonald-Evoy

Reporter Jerod MacDonald-Evoy joined the Arizona Mirror from the Arizona Republic, where he spent 4 years covering everything from dark money in politics to Catholic priest sexual abuse scandals. He brings strong watchdog sensibilities and creative storytelling skills to the Arizona Mirror.