‘Partially automated’ trucks to be tested on I-70 in Ohio and Indiana

Tests could start later this year and in 2024.

Ohio and Indiana have agreed to test partially automated trucks on a 166-mile stretch of Interstate 70, testing that could begin as early as October.

The Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) and DriveOhio — an Ohio government organization focused on refining “smart mobility technology” — are rolling out a four-year, $8 million plan to bring the partially automated semi-trucks to roads in both states.

That will include testing on I-70 in the Dayton and Springfield regions.

These are not self-driving vehicles, a DriveOhio director said.

“A professional driver will be always at the wheel in each vehicle, so the term ‘self-driving’ is not accurate,” said Breanna Badanes, managing director of communication and policy for DriveOhio. “These vehicles cannot drive themselves.”

The project aims to advance truck automation in the logistics industry by integrating these technologies into truck fleets’ daily freight-hauling operations, Badanes told this news outlet Wednesday.

The states have established a 166-mile corridor for testing the vehicles on I-70 between Columbus and Indianapolis.

It’s a partnership between ODOT, DriveOhio, the Indiana Department of Transportation and the Transportation Research Center Inc.

The earliest testing could happen would be this fall, Badanes said. But it may be pushed back to the spring of 2024.

“I also want to be clear that this project is driven by safety,” she added. “This technology has the potential to maximize safe operation and reduce the likelihood of collisions, as well as making the job easier for truck drivers. We aim to test varying levels of automation, all of which still require a human driver at the wheel.”

Norita Taylor, a spokeswoman for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, said the truckers her group represents have some concerns about autonomous or partially-autonomous vehicles.

“We think that common sense dictates that smaller vehicles should be perfected before allowing autonomous trucks,” Taylor told this newspaper.

But the group’s biggest concern is what she called “transparency” from vehicle producers.

“Right now, sharing safety data is voluntary and we think that is not in the public interest,” she said.

This year, the Washington Post reviewed National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data and found that Tesla Autopilot software was involved in 736 crashes since 2019, including 17 fatalities.

Kevin Burch, Martin Transportation Systems’ vice president of governmental affairs and sales, said the idea of automated or autonomous vehicles gets a decidedly mixed reaction in the trucking industry.

Burch said there’s a feeling that the prospect of this technology “puts a big bind on recruiting people.”

“Who wants to put the time and effort into getting a CDL (commercial driver’s license) if in fact it’s going to be driverless?” he said.

He believes the technology or some version of it may be inevitable, whether it’s a milder form of “driver’s assist” or total control by a computer

But he added: “We are many, many, many years away from total autonomy.”

Costs, public opinion and other questions complicate the issue, including how these trucks will handle heavy construction areas, he said.

“It is complicated,” Burch said.

This kind of technology is not entirely new for Ohio.

In 2016, a semi ran test routes up and down U.S 33 between Columbus and East Liberty. The driver in the front seat had no hands on the steering wheel. Like cars, these trucks use sensors and radar to operate.

More recently, in January, Drive Ohio said “automated vehicles” would soon be found driving on rural roadways in central and southeast Ohio.

“Automated vehicle technology is revolutionizing the transportation industry, including the way that goods move, and people travel,” DriveOhio said in January.

While there has been no formal state announcement on the semi-truck testing, the state has prepared a web site explaining the issue: https://drive.ohio.gov/programs/av-cv/70-truck-automated-corridor

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