Waymo Joins Uber In Autonomous Trucking Race

Waymo is launching a self-driving truck pilot in Atlanta, the latest move toward trucking in an industry that’s simultaneously trying to sell consumers on riding in driverless cars.The company that grew out of Google’s self-driving car project will use autonomous trucks to deliver goods to Google data centers. Trained drivers will be on board the whole time, Waymo said.

The Waymo launch on Friday, March 9, followed autonomous trucking announcements this week by ride-hailing rival Uber and startups Starsky Robotics and Embark.

All have self-driving trucks on the road in some capacity, mostly with drivers along for safety, though Starsky said one of its trucks drove for seven miles in Florida with no one on board.

While Uber’s self-driving trucks in Arizona are part of its Uber Freight truck-for-hire business, the Waymo pilot is internal to Alphabet, the parent of both Google and Waymo. The pilot is intended partly to study how to integrate autonomous trucks into shipping operations.

Waymo is building its fledgling truck business on the back of its prior work with self-driving cars, such as the Chrysler Pacifica minivans that have given rides for free in Phoenix and are scheduled to start operating commercially this year. The full-size semi-trucks hitting the road in Atlanta use the same suite of sensors and the same software as the minivans, the company says.

They’ll also benefit from its extensive testing and experience, Waymo said, citing the more than 5 million miles in the real world and 5 billion miles in simulators that is a point of pride for the company.

Including its years within Google, Waymo has been working on its technology since 2009.

Tasks such as braking and turning are different in a full-size tractor-trailer rig, so Waymo says it’s done further software development. It’s been road-testing the technology in trucks for about a year in California and Arizona in preparation for the pilot, where the rigs will deliver real loads. The pilot will take place in Atlanta partly because it’s one of the biggest logistics hubs in the US. Georgia says trucks carry more than $620 billion worth of cargo on the state’s roads every year. Atlanta is also one of the cities where Waymo is testing self-driving cars.

Trucking could be a lucrative market for autonomous driving developers, who may have an easier time selling their technology to the shipping industry than to consumers.

A recent Gallup poll showed many consumers don’t see themselves ever using driverless cars. (They’re also nervous about sharing the road with driverless trucks, which might lead to tighter regulation.) But cargo comes down to dollars and cents, and the industry reportedly faces a growing labor shortage in the US. Eliminating the driver for some or all of a journey could help trucking companies tackle both of those issues.

Companies developing autonomous truck technology say it won’t put all truckers out of work soon, or ever.

For example, Uber says its vision for self-driving trucks is built around hubs outside cities, where trailers are transferred from autonomous long-haul trucks to traditional rigs. It still takes human drivers to navigate city streets and back trucks up to warehouses, Uber says. In the Waymo trial, trucks will drive on freeways and local roads around the Atlanta area, the company told The Connected Car.

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

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