On a sunny Wednesday morning, a cyclist pedals furiously down the shoulder of Interstate 20, just south of Dallas. He’s no more than ten feet from dozens of cars zooming by at seventy miles per hour. One tiny mishap—say, a passing driver distracted by changing the radio station and swerving at the worst possible moment—could kill the cyclist. And he has no idea that approaching rapidly behind him is an eighteen-wheeler without a driver in control.

Fortunately for the cyclist, pods mounted on the truck’s sides are equipped with cameras, lasers, and radar that give the vehicle a 360-degree picture of its surroundings and help it gauge distances. The sensors identify the cyclist as a moving object that needs to be avoided and send data about his location and speed to a filing cabinet–size computer in the back seat of the cab, which processes and reprocesses the situation at a rate of ten times per second to determine what to do.

A monitor on the dashboard depicts what the computer sees: a tiny digital box moving on the shoulder near other shapes that represent trees and cars. As the truck nears the cyclist, the computer sends instructions to actuators that control the brakes and the steering wheel. The truck slows and edges slightly to the left, giving extra room to the rider without veering into the left lane. He’ll never know that an autonomous vehicle just blazed safely past him.

I’m watching this play out from the truck’s back seat, along with three employees of Kodiak, a Silicon Valley–based autonomous-vehicle company. They’ve invited me along to witness a twenty-minute test drive, during which the cyclist is far from the only obstacle we encounter along I-20 and Interstate 45. Construction workers shut down a lane. Debris resembling a gargantuan box spring sits on the shoulder. Two speeding cars veer across two lanes of traffic in a single maneuver, Fast & Furious style. All the while, the truck remains unfazed. It chugs along at five miles under the speed limit, signals when it changes lanes, and gives other cars (and debris) plenty of space. The Kodiak employee in the driver’s seat, there just in case of a malfunction, doesn’t once put his hands on the wheel.

Soon Kodiak’s trucks will operate in Texas without any humans onboard. The company expects to set loose a handful of unsupervised trucks on I-45 between Houston and Dallas sometime later this year. These will transport freight from one trucking terminal alongside the highway to another, but not ferry the cargoes to their final destinations in the cities. Pittsburgh-based Aurora, another autonomous-vehicle company, has announced plans to do the same. Vehicles from both companies have been operating and shipping freight on Texas highways for the last several years, but always with safety drivers in the front seat, ready to take over as needed.

Unlike many other states, Texas explicitly permits autonomous trucks to operate without human drivers and has a high volume of freight traffic, making it an ideal place for Aurora and Kodiak to launch their driverless commercial operations. Advocates of autonomous trucks say the technology could make the state’s roads safer, an especially worthy goal in Texas, where at least one person has died every day from a fatal car crash since 2000. Large trucks were involved in about 13 percent of all the fatal crashes in Texas in 2021, the most recent year such data has been released. That year nearly 15 percent of all large truck–related fatal collisions in the U.S. occurred in Texas, double California’s share. “Seeing the fatality rate just continue to rise year after year after year, deploying technology is a natural step,” said John Esparza, president and CEO of the Texas Trucking Association.

But many of America’s two million heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers fear that any such shift will result in lower-paying jobs for them. Public trust in the safety of autonomous vehicles is also low, and the high-profile dragging of a woman in California by a robotaxi hasn’t helped. Will driverless trucks be a solution to the persistent problems on Texas highways—including traffic bottlenecks and one of the country’s worst distracted driving rates—or simply add to the chaos on roads that already see plenty of it?

Kodiak paraphrased the motto of Friday Night Lights’ Dillon Panthers in announcing the 2019 opening of its operations center in the southern Dallas County suburb of Lancaster: “Clear lanes. Full tanks. Can’t wait!” Soon after, Aurora and just about every other major player in autonomous trucking had set up shop in Texas.

They were drawn not just by the state’s warm weather and robust freight economy, with its many potential trucking-company clients, but also by a bill passed by the state legislature in 2017 that legalized driverless vehicle operations and barred municipalities from enacting their own regulations. The law paved a relatively easy road for any trucking company looking to go fully driverless. In comparison, California has yet to create a permitting process for autonomous trucks, meaning Aurora and Kodiak couldn’t test there, even with human drivers present.  

Yet three California-based start-ups with footholds in Texas—Embark, TuSimple, and Alphabet-owned Waymo—ceased their autonomous-truck operations last year. Embark couldn’t secure new investor funding, while TuSimple lost a deal with manufacturing partner Navistar. Waymo chose to focus, on autonomous cars for now. Given their unproven nature, driverless trucks present a technological and legal risk, according to Craig Fuller, CEO of FreightWaves, a data provider and price-reporting agency for the freight market. They’re a tough business proposition for freight carriers, which typically see single-digit profit margins.

Ossa Fisher, Aurora’s president, credited her company’s survival to its sensor technology and its success in cementing key partnerships that eluded some of its competitors. German automotive-parts manufacturer Continental will put Aurora’s software into hardware kits for trucks built by Volvo and Paccar. Fisher hopes to have thousands of trucks using the technology by 2027 and expects that freight carriers such as FedEx or Werner will buy those trucks and pay Aurora for every mile for which its technology does the driving. Kodiak is taking a different approach, planning to integrate its technology into trucks owned by its freight-carrying customers while likewise charging by the mile.

Both companies boast of considerable improvements made to their self-driving technology during the last few years. For example, Kodiak’s latest truck processes information 1.6 times faster than its first model, and Aurora’s sensors can see five hundred meters up the road, allowing its truck roughly eleven seconds longer than a human driver would have to react to what’s ahead. Each truck is equipped with backup systems for automated braking, steering, and power, to reduce the possibility of a disaster if the primary system fails.

Along I-45, near Aurora’s base of operations in Palmer, a small town about 25 miles south of downtown Dallas, I rode along as the sensors on the company’s truck relayed information to a clothing trunk–size computer in the back seat that powered the system’s decision-making software. The truck coded various objects on the road by color, its view displayed on a monitor on the dashboard. Pink boxes were people, blue boxes were vehicles, aqua boxes were motorcycles. A slow-moving car appeared with a snail insignia and prompted the truck to change lanes and prepare to pass. Near the end of the drive, two blue squares appeared on the right shoulder: a police car had pulled over a vehicle. The Aurora truck started to switch lanes but hesitated when it detected another truck behind it. It slowed to let the other truck pass before switching lanes for the vehicles on the shoulder.  

Routine maneuvers like that have been perfected during more than a million miles of driving on Texas roads—with experienced truck drivers in the front seats, gauging the vehicles’ reactions—and billions more in simulations. The software powering the trucks has experienced “so much more than a human driver,” said Lance Underwood, Aurora’s director of terminal operations. It also doesn’t speed, get drunk, or become distracted, three of the leading causes of fatal Texas accidents.

Last year Aurora tested its software against 29 simulations of actual fatal crashes involving trucks on I-45 between Dallas and Houston. In every case, according to Fisher, the Aurora truck would have avoided the collision. Aurora has combed through accident reports nationwide to test far-flung scenarios, too, like a plane landing on the freeway. “It doesn’t actually need to know that it’s an airplane or a UFO or a flock of birds. But it needs to know that it’s an object that it wants to avoid,” she said.

Still, anything can happen on a highway, and the public won’t be comparing the Kodiak and Aurora systems to human drivers. “The very interesting dichotomy that exists with regard to autonomous trucking, or any autonomous vehicles, is we expect absolutely zero accidents,” said Robert Brydia, a senior research scientist at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. Brydia described the autonomous-vehicle companies he’s researched and corresponded with as “extremely focused on safety.” Neither Kodiak nor Aurora has caused a serious accident on Texas roads, according to data collected by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, but both have reported to the agency involvement in a few minor accidents in which they weren’t at fault. In 2022, a TuSimple truck crashed into a highway barrier in Arizona, with industry analysts blaming the technology. 

For Kodiak and Aurora, it’s going to take more than a few hundred uneventful driverless trips on I-45 to establish a safety record and sway the public. One study from the RAND Corporation, a California-based think tank, suggested autonomous vehicles would need to drive hundreds of millions of miles—if not hundreds of billions—before their safety record could be conclusively compared to the imperfect record of human drivers.

There’s no denying at least one strength of the autonomous trucks: endurance. Federal regulations limit truck drivers to 11 hours of work per day and require them to take 10 hours off before driving again. Aurora’s trucks are designed to drive about 22 hours a day. For an economy fueled by consumption, that could be a breakthrough. For truck drivers in need of work, it represents an unwelcome disruption.

Every day in Laredo, trucks line up on both sides of the Rio Grande, belching diesel exhaust on the World Trade Bridge as they wait to cross the border. Some 17,000 to 20,000 trucks, many of them stocked with auto parts or agricultural machinery, move between Texas and Mexico every day, making Laredo the busiest international trade port in the U.S. in 2023. Last year it processed some $320 billion in goods, up 7 percent year over year and nearly twice as much as in 2013. “I think we’ll be continuously growing,” said Laredo mayor Victor Treviño.

Esparza, of the Texas Trucking Association, goes a step further, calling the appetite for freight in Texas “unquenchable.” He believes the need for qualified human drivers is similar. The American Trucking Associations, a trade group for trucking companies, cited a national driver shortage of 60,000 last year. Aurora and Kodiak say they can help make up for this shortfall and strengthen the economy without causing heavy job losses among truck drivers.

A U.S. Department of Transportation study from 2021 backs the autonomous companies’ belief that they’ll benefit the economy. If 75 percent of major trucking companies adopt driverless technology in the next ten years—a highly optimistic estimate—the study found that driver layoffs would be minimal. While America has roughly 2 million heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers, the long-haul drivers whose jobs are most at risk of automation number about 300,000. These jobs often feature poor working conditions and can be automated more easily and economically than shorter-distance routes.

Meanwhile, the USDOT study determined, increased productivity from automation in the freight industry would lead to reduced fuel usage, increased GDP, and job growth. As Kodiak’s Dan Goff explained, “If you start to eat into that driver shortage, it actually creates jobs across the economy and puts money into everybody’s pocket just because of better efficiency.”

But such rosy projections have hardly swayed the Teamsters, a union representing truck drivers. “Nobody is ever going to convince me that if you take away jobs in the United States, that’s going to help the economy,” said Brent Taylor, vice president of the Teamsters’ southern region. Taylor doesn’t believe in the driver shortage either. He said a Texas shortage in 2020 and 2021 has abated. “I got guys looking for work.”

He’s not the only skeptic. The heavy traffic of Laredo notwithstanding, thousands of trucking companies have shuttered since late 2022, sunk by rising fuel costs and freight rates that have plummeted to about $2 per mile, down from highs of around $4 per mile during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Fuller, the FreightWaves CEO. He says that many entrepreneurs entered the market during the pandemic years, when he estimates the number of trucking companies increased by 28 percent between 2019 and 2022. That led to too many trucks looking to haul too little freight as prepandemic conditions returned. “[It’s] like when you have an oil well that is turned off,” Fuller said. The supposed driver shortage, he added, “is a story that [autonomous truck companies are] very comfortable telling because they can convince investors who know very little about the industry.”

The Teamsters, meanwhile, are trying to convince Texas legislators to pump the brakes. Last year state representative Erin Elizabeth Gámez, a Democrat from Brownsville, introduced a bill that would have required a licensed driver in every autonomous truck, believing it was necessary to protect “the public and the highly skilled labor force” of Texas drivers. (Although it wasn’t in the bill, she’d also like Texas to create a comprehensive system for tracking crashes involving the vehicles and require autonomous trucking companies to formally alert the municipalities in which they operate.) Gámez’s bill didn’t make it out of the House Committee on Transportation. Taylor hopes similar legislation will be introduced when lawmakers meet again in 2025. 

By then, of course, Kodiak and Aurora should already have fully driverless trucks on I-45, chosen for its popularity among the companies’ freight-hauling clients. They’re pushing for federal frameworks to govern autonomous trucks nationwide, giving them the ability to operate without drivers coast-to-coast. At the least, they’ll likely be able to expand into other Midwest and Sun Belt states that have also authorized driverless trucks, and Aurora says its second driverless route will run from Fort Worth to El Paso on I-20 and Interstate 10. It doesn’t yet have a timeline for that expansion.

Later this year, at terminals in Palmer and Houston, Aurora expects as many as twenty driverless trucks to be passing through every day. Human drivers will ferry freight to Palmer, where human workers will unhook a trailer of goods from an arriving vehicle and hook it up to a truck equipped with Aurora’s technology. From there, an Aurora employee will use an app to confirm that the driverless truck is ready for its mission and send it through a lane surrounded by giant QR code signs that help recalibrate the truck’s cameras and sensors. It will then depart, heading to the Aurora terminal in Houston, where it can pick up a new trailer of goods and return to Palmer.

On my visit, the company’s operations already looked efficient. Before we headed out for my test ride, a human driver drove the truck through the QR code lane. He steered it through the dusty terminal toward the I-45 frontage road and pressed a cruise control button. Then the truck made a chirping sound, and a blue light on the dashboard turned green. Just like that, the computer was in control.