ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — For most of its 374 miles across New Mexico's midsection, Interstate 40 runs straight through vast expanses of high desert.
But there's a geographic blip five miles east of Albuquerque, where the highway squeezes through a canyon in the Sandia Mountain Range, climbs to an elevation of 7,200 feet and wriggles around curves before resuming its monotonous journey eastward to the Texas Panhandle.
Scouting more than 3,000 miles of roads in search of a compelling place to test self-driving trucks, it was this anomaly that captured the imagination of Andrew Culhane.
Along the mountain stretch, he foresaw a bounty of opportunities. Long off-ramps and short acceleration lanes, and vice versa. Going uphill, those road features might be easier to handle. A descent while hauling 80,000 pounds might be more challenging. Light snow. Strong crosswinds. High altitude.
"If you are driving boring roads, you are not informing the product development," said Culhane, chief strategy officer at Torc Robotics. "Here, we can get a lot of reps faster."
Most of Torc's competitors have established operational depots in places such as Phoenix and Dallas and test on long hauls between cities. Torc, an independent subsidiary of Daimler Trucks, resides here in Albuquerque. Specifically, in a former Ford dealership, from which it dispatches a dozen or so Freightliner Cascadia Class 8 trucks for daily testing.
On a mid-November morning, I went along for the ride, sitting in the rear seats, along with Culhane.
Once Torc's two-person safety driving team receives permission to depart from mission-control specialists, we begin the company's "Coyote" route, headed up Interstate 25 and easing onto Interstate 40. A blue light near the ceiling illuminates when the truck enters autonomous mode.