Each year semis haul more than $20 billion worth of goods across the state and its border with Mexico. Arizona’s interstates are also the prime testing ground for TuSimple, an international company developing driverless commercial trucks.
TuSimple arrived in Tucson in 2017, two years after Gov. Doug Ducey signed an executive order that established the ground rules for testing self-driving vehicles on public roads. Today it tests a fleet of nearly 20 semis equipped with radar, lidar and cameras on routes along Interstate 19 and Interstate 10 between Nogales and Phoenix. Long-term goals include developing a truck that can cover long distances without a driver. However, a driver would still be necessary for shorter distances in more urban areas. Test drivers include Mo Fitzgerald, whose career in trucking spans more than 30 years.
“When I applied here I’m like, ‘Oh, I’ll be a test driver and this is going to replace everybody’s job.’ And it’s the complete opposite. This is going to take the boring, monotonous driving out that most drivers don’t want to do,” Fitzgerald said. “The technology is here now to make it more exciting for younger people.”
Driver shortages are a present issue for the industry, according to Robert Brown, head of TuSimple’s government relations and public affairs in Arizona.
“The American Trucking Association says we’re short around 50,000 drivers today and it’s growing to over 200,000 in the next few years,” Brown said. “My cousin’s 22 years old and he wants to be a trucker. He’ll retire a trucker if he wants to be. So what we are trying to do is offset that acute driver shortage in that long haul segment right now.”
In planning for the future and the type of worker TuSimple will need, the company teamed up with Pima Community College to create a new certification program launching in September. PCC will train experienced truckers on the systems used by TuSimple. Missy Blair manages PCC’s transportation program and explained why the college is embracing autonomous technology.
“The college has been very hyper-focused on workforce. So this is something that we really want to be able to help the community with getting upskilled. Because as we know, things are moving rapidly in technology and so we have to be able to adapt to that,” Blair said. “As the technology gets better and as TuSimple forges their way through the industry, then we’ll be able to also evolve with what they need. So this is just the first step of it.”