Behind the wheel of autonomous trucks with TuSimple in Tucson

The future of trucking is here and an 18-wheeler is driving itself up and down the highways, in and around Tucson, day and night.

"I saw the ad in the paper that said autonomous truck driver and I thought that’s interesting so I applied and here I am now," said Maureen "Mo" Fitzgerald, an autonomous test driver – a former trucker turned trucking test pilot. And these big rigs are her babies.

She pats and praises them when they do things right. Otherwise, it's hands off the wheel. Feet off the pedals.

"I think the drivers in the trucks are learning together. We’re teaching the trucks and the companies are putting that information into the trucks and we’re all hoping they will be the safest trucks on the road," she said.

So who or what is doing the driving? There's a big black box in the backseat, loaded with artificial intelligence inside, capable of making 400 trillion operations per second.

It's collection of cameras simultaneously scan 360° views and it can react 10 times faster than a human driver.

"So we're on I-10 [Interstate 10], heading into the heart of Tucson. We're fully autonomous, operating at 65 miles per hour speed limit," said Chuck Price, chief product officer for TuSimple.

Watching everything bad drivers, debris, wind, rain, snow, signs, lights, construction, crashes, cop cars, animals, ambulance, trains tracks, tire treads, dips, ditches, pot holes, offramps, lane lines, tailgaters, illegal left turns.

And if the truck breaks down, well there's an app for that, too.

"If the vehicle has a breakdown, it blows a tire or has an oil leak, or an air leak, the vehicle will detect that and pull itself off the road. And our oversight system will know what happened and will send rescue for that vehicle," explained Price.

Arizona is one of a handful of test sites on track to transform the country's $800 billion a year trucking industry.

"The race right now is to get a vehicle system built, but also to make a viable commercial solution that fleets can actually use," said Price.

These high-tech trucks can save more than 10% on fuel costs, cut down on wear and tear, get better insurance rates and there’s no driver to pay.  TuSimple engineers insist the robots are better and safer behind the wheel, plus they don’t sleep, eat, text or take bathroom breaks.

"It never sleeps, it never texts, it's never distracted so it’s a safer vehicle on the highway," said Price.

Mo doesn't see AI robots and job terminators, instead taking over the taxing long-haul trips many human drivers would rather avoid anyway.

"They want to be home with their families, they want to stay local. So if we can take that long, monotonous driving out and let this truck do it and do it safely, then there’s a future in this."

And that's the other thing Mo sees from the driver's seat.

This technology is the future of trucking. Either get onboard or get left behind.

TuSimple started in the spring by delivering a load of watermelons on a 1,000 mile trip from Arizona to Oklahoma. And they expect to begin making commercial autonomous trips by the end of 2024.

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