Aurora going the distance, adding 600-mile autonomous route in Texas

Aurora Innovation has added a 600-mile autonomous route between Fort Worth and El Paso, Texas, testing its Aurora Driver Beta 2.0 lane on the middle leg between Atlanta and Los Angeles, one of the nation’s busiest commercial freight thoroughfares.

The new-generation Peterbilt Model 579 trucks, still supervised by human safety drivers, are equipped with the second release of Aurora’s integrated hardware and autonomy system recently revealed in Aurora’s Toyota Sienna ride-hailing test fleet in Arizona.

Aurora and Waymo Via both share software and hardware developments between passenger cars and commercial vehicles. Other autonomous startups, like TuSimple, Embark Trucks, Kodiak Robotics and Plus, focus exclusively on trucking.

“Aurora Driver Beta 2.0 represents an incremental yet critical milestone in our path to launching an end-to-end autonomous product that can safely move both freight and people,” said Chris Urmson, Aurora CEO and co-founder, who recently rode in one of the company’s autonomous trucks on its newest route.

Watch now: Aurora CEO Chris Urmson on West Texas test ride

Aurora Driver Beta 2.0 features advanced highway and suburban capabilities, including the ability to navigate complex construction zones that can suddenly appear. 

Higher-resolution cameras

Upgraded higher-resolution cameras take in four times as much data and can detect obstacles at twice the distance of the first Aurora Driver release. Combined with Aurora’s FirstLight lidar and imaging radar, the cameras allow the Aurora Driver to perceive and react to distant objects like road debris, vehicles on the shoulder and pop-up construction zones.

Daily high-definition map updates support weekly freight runs from Fort Worth to El Paso. Aurora declined to name its freight customer for the new route. The expansion comes after Kodiak Robotics announced earlier this month that it is hauling freight 200 miles from Dallas-Fort Worth to Oklahoma City, the first autonomous runs in the Sooner State.

The mapping software, called Aurora Atlas, continuously updates to reflect new construction, fresh lane markings, vegetation growth and more. Updates are shared within hours across Aurora’s truck fleet and minivans.  

To effectively haul freight on longer routes, Aurora determined it needed to seamlessly navigate   complicated construction zones that require changing lanes and nudging around concrete barriers and cones, as well as identifying and reacting to temporary speed limits, lane closure signs and construction workers and their vehicles. 

Tackling Texas U-turns

Aurora Driver Beta 2.0 is programmed to handle Texas U-turns, a lane allowing vehicles traveling on one side of a one-way frontage road to U-turn onto the opposite frontage road, typically crossing over or under a freeway. Controlled by yield signs, they allow U-turning traffic to bypass two traffic signals and avoid crossing the local traffic twice.

The updated system does a better job of handling unprotected left turns, high-speed merges and lane changes introduced in Aurora Beta Driver 1.0, the company said.

“Whether we’re hauling goods for FedEx or preparing to take passengers to the airport, we’re seeing our technology evolve into a valuable product, and that’s exciting,” Urmson said in a press release.

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