Uber Hits Arizona’s Open Roads With Self-Driving Trucks

While ride-hailing companies new and old race toward driverless cars, Uber is also advancing on another front: autonomous long-haul trucking.

The company’s Uber Freight service has started pulling trailers behind self-driving semi trucks in Arizona, a state with miles of rural highways and the most liberal autonomous vehicle regulations in the country.

Trucking is ripe for disruption by self-driving technology given the high cost of qualified drivers, the long hours they work, and the current labor shortage in the business, which is likely to get worse as more drivers retire. But driverless trucks are also controversial, given consumers’ safety concerns and the potential to eliminate a lot of jobs.

Uber says self-driving trucks will ease the shortage of drivers and make their lives better rather than making the career obsolete.

Autonomous trucks are well suited to long rural highways but can’t navigate narrow, crowded city streets or pull up to loading docks, Uber says. It envisions transfer hubs outside metropolitan areas around the country where drivers will drop off loads from the long-haul vehicles and pick them up with trucks that drivers can take into a city. This could keep more truckers close to home rather than on the road for 200 nights per year, Uber says. This videodemonstrates a current long haul on a self-driving truck between transfer hubs in two Arizona towns, Sanders in the eastern part of the state and Topock in the west. Interstate 40 runs between them.

There’s still a safety driver in every self-driving truck, because the system is still in testing mode. When the trucks are ready to be fully autonomous, Uber plans to gradually remove the driver from the cab. It doesn’t have a timeline for that yet.

Uber Freight launched last year. It works like Uber, but for trucking loads instead of passengers. Customers find a driver to pick up their load and haul it to a destination, the same way Uber users find a car to give them a ride. The service is designed to make it easier for shippers to get their loads delivered and for trucking companies and drivers to find loads to carry and get paid.

Uber is one of the biggest names exploring autonomous trucks, but it’s not alone.

A startup called Embark has been delivering refrigerators from El Paso, Texas, to Palm Springs, Calif., in self-driving trucks with safety drivers since late last year. Starsky Robotics says it has already done commercial hauling with trucks that have autonomous capabilities and remote-control driving capabilities.

Arizona is one of several states trying to attract autonomous driving projects. Waymo, Uber, Intel and General Motors are all testing cars in the state. Last week, just days after California announced it would start allowing cars without safety drivers in April, Arizona’s governor signed an executive order that explicitly allows driverless cars.

It requires that the cars follow traffic laws, and that operators have a plan to work with law enforcement, but stops well short of California rules like requiring a remote driving system.

— Stephen Lawson is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @sdlawsonmedia.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *