PITTSBURGH (NEWSnet/AP) — On a three-lane test track along the Monongahela River, an 18-wheel tractor-trailer rounded a curve. No one was on board.

A quarter-mile ahead, the truck’s sensors spotted a trash can blocking one lane and a tire in another. In less than a second, it signaled, moved into the unobstructed lane and rumbled past the obstacles.

The self-driving semi, outfitted with 25 laser, radar and camera sensors, is owned by Pittsburgh-based Aurora Innovation. Late this year, Aurora plans to start hauling freight on Interstate 45 between the Dallas and Houston areas with 20 driverless trucks.

Within three or four years, Aurora and its competitors expect to route thousands such self-driving trucks on America’s freeways. The goal is for the trucks, which can run nearly around the clock without any breaks, to speed the flow of goods, accelerating delivery times and perhaps lowering costs. They’ll travel short distances on secondary roads, too.

The companies say the autonomous trucks will save on fuel, too, because they don’t have to stop and will drive at more consistent speeds.

The image of a fully loaded, 80,000-pound driverless truck weaving around cars on a super-highway at 65 mph or more may strike a note of terror. A poll conducted in January by AAA found that a decisive majority of American drivers — 66% — said they would fear riding in an autonomous vehicle.

But in less than nine months, a seven-year science experiment by Aurora will end, and driverless trucks will start carrying loads between terminals for FedEx, Uber Freight, Werner and other partners. Aurora and most of its rivals plan to start running freight routes in Texas, where snow and ice are generally rare.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, both part of the federal Department of Transportation, lack authority to stop autonomous vehicles from going on the roads. If something goes wrong, though, they can require recalls or order trucks out of service.

Critics complain that federal agencies, including the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, take a generally passive approach to safety, typically acting only after crashes occur. And most states provide scant regulation.

But Aurora and other companies that are developing the systems argue that years of testing show that their trucks will actually be safer than human-driven ones.

They note that the vehicles’ laser and radar sensors can “see” farther than human eyes can. The trucks never tire, as human drivers do. They never become distracted or impaired by alcohol or drugs.

“We want to be out there with thousands or tens of thousands of trucks on the road,” said Chris Urmson, Aurora’s CEO and formerly head of Google’s autonomous vehicle operations. “And to do that, we have to be safe. It’s the only way that the public will accept it. Frankly, it’s the only way our customers will accept it.”

On the test track, reporters saw Aurora’s semis avoid simulations of road obstacles, including pedestrians, a blown tire, even a horse. But the trucks were running at only 35 mph in a controlled environment with nothing unexpected happening. (The trucks are being tested with human safety drivers on Texas freeways at speeds of 65 mph or higher.)

Since 2021, Aurora trucks have autonomously hauled freight over 1 million miles on public highways — but with human safety drivers in the cabs. There have been only three crashes, Urmson said, all of them caused by mistakes by human drivers in other vehicles.

The company’s competitors — Plus.ai, Gatik, Kodiak Robotics and others — also plan soon to put driverless trucks on the roads hauling freight for customers. Gatik expects it to happen this year or next; the others haven’t set timetables.

The Teamsters union, which represents about 600,000 drivers, most of them truckers, is pushing state legislatures to require human drivers to monitor the self-driving systems. A 2021 Transportation Department study concluded that the nationwide use of fully automated semis was years away, giving drivers time to transition to other transportation and logistics jobs.

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