Tractor-trailers could haul freight from Mexico north, through Nebraska, to Canada without the need for bathroom breaks, passports at the border or even a driver.

It’s a futuristic idea that might not be too far off, according to a North Dakota-based trade promotion group that wants to see U.S. 83 become a test corridor for autonomous vehicles and commerce.

Cars that can drive themselves already exist, and technology companies like Alibaba, Tesla Motors, Baidu and Google are aggressively pushing to get them to market. Google has said it is working with manufacturers to get fully autonomous cars on dealership floors within five years.

“I think 15 to 20 years from now we’re going to tell our kids we used to drive these things, and they are going to laugh at us,” Marlo Anderson, a director of the Central North American Trade Corridor Association, said in a phone interview from his office in Mandan, North Dakota.

Anderson said he and others bandied about the idea of autonomous trucks and cargo-carrying drones traversing the heartland last year at the Trade & Transportation Summit in Bismarck, North Dakota.

They envisioned “land ports” built along U.S. 83 with fueling stations, loading docks and designated areas for drones to land. It’s a way to make better use of the existing highway, Anderson said.

Anderson said the idea of an autonomous-friendly corridor grew during the past year and the association now is going through a visioning process to identify hurdles and strategies.

“We’re looking at the regulations and starting to work with industry leaders and government officials about how we move forward with this,” he said. “In the future, our vehicles are going to be autonomous. It is just a matter of how we get there and how we handle the legal hurdles.”

Self driving trucks could cruise on any road, but the association wants to promote the corridor as tailored specifically to them. The highway would remain open to all existing traffic. 

U.S. 83 runs through Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and North Dakota, passing through Nebraska towns including McCook, North Platte and Valentine.

Autonomous trucks won’t be putting drivers out of jobs any time soon, he said. But eventually they could help alleviate a shortage of drivers the American Trucking Association estimates to be between 35,000 and 40,000 drivers nationwide.

At least in the initial years of autonomous trucking, Anderson said, a person likely will still ride in the cab and use the autonomous drive like cruise control, letting it take over steering on long stretches of highway. It would give humans more time to get paperwork done and be fresher when they need to take the wheel.

Computers, in addition to not needing sleep or vacations, are better drivers and can use tools including thermal sensors that would warn of nearby deer or children at night, Anderson said.

“The only job these vehicles have is to drive. It is not distracted by a cell phone call. It’s not distracted by eating a Big Mac,” Anderson said.

Nebraska Trucking Association President Larry Johnson said autonomous trucking sounds intriguing, but he has doubts about the practicality of maneuvering around docking stations and whether it will be financially feasible.

“I guess somewhere down the road I see the possibility, but not in my lifetime and I’m not that old,” said the 56-year-old.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7304 or nbergin@journalstar.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ljsbergin.

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