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Why Waymo is Plunging into Self-Driving Semi-Truck Test

Waymo alphabet self-driving truck

Waymo, the autonomous vehicle unit of Alphabet Inc., is testing a self-driving truck.

The company, formerly known as Google’s autonomous car venture, has installed its self-driving technology on a single Class 8 Peterbilt truck.

Waymo has begun tests at a private track in California and plans road tests in Arizona later in the year. For now, it is keeping a driver behind the wheel at all times.

The company, which has millions of miles of on-road experience with autonomous cars, wants to learn how self-driving technology works in larger vehicles. Trucks in the heaviest Class 8 weight segment handle differently than passenger cars. They accelerate and brake more slowly. Their turning radius is far larger. They have giant blind spots.

All of this requires that the sensors that provide data to the computer systems driving the truck  be positioned differently than where they would be on a car.

“Self-driving technology can transport people and things much more safely than we do today and reduce the thousands of trucking-related deaths each year,” Waymo said in a statement. “We’re taking our eight years of experience in building self-driving hardware and software and conducting a technical exploration into how our technology can integrate into a truck.”

Waymo is trying to diversify to as many applications as possible for its technology, said Michael Ramsey, an automotive analyst at Gartner Inc.

“The size of the vehicles involved creates unique challenges, but the technology to drive an over-the-road, Class 8 truck isn’t that different than from Waymo’s koala car,” Ramsey said.

He said the timing of the testing was ironic given the legal battle between Waymo and Uber, which last year purchased Otto, a self-driving truck technology company founded by Anthony Levandowski, a veteran of Google’s autonomous car division, and Lior Ron, previously in charge of Google Maps.

Waymo has filed a lawsuit against Uber that alleges Levandowski stole company trade secrets.  Uber fired Levandowski last month, shortly after launching its Uber Freight division.

“Of course, the timing of the testing in relation to the lawsuit against Uber and its Otto division makes it appear like a little dagger in the side of its rival,” Ramsey said.

As a self-driving technology company, Waymo sees its mission as developing vehicles that make it safe and easy to transport both people and cargo. It envisions trucking as an area where autonomous driving can improve safety.

Truck driving is among the deadliest occupations in America, with 745 drivers killed on the job in 2015, the latest year for which there is federal data. Trucking transportation occupations accounted for slightly more than a quarter of all work-related fatalities in 2015, more than any other U.S. job, according to an annual workplace fatality report from the U.S. Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.

There were 4,067 people killed and an estimated 116,000 people injured in crashes involving

large trucks in 2015, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Waymo also believes that autonomous trucks could alleviate an on-going shortfall of drivers in the industry by taking over the long-haul segment of trucking.

Most truck manufacturers also are developing self-driving technology.

In a report released Wednesday, the International Transport Forum said up to 70 percent of all trucking jobs could be wiped out by 2030 as a result of self-driving trucks.

“Driverless trucks could be a regular presence on many roads within the next ten years,” said José Viegas, Secretary-General of the ITF, in a statement. “Manufacturers are investing heavily into automation, and many governments are actively reviewing their regulations. Preparing now for potential negative social impact of job losses will mitigate the risks in case a rapid transition occurs.”

From the industry's point of view, the coming era of autonomous vehicles promises an array of benefits, the ITF noted. These include dramatic cost savings, reduced pollution, fewer accidents, and a solution to the driver shortage.

Related: Self-Driving Trucks, Delivery Vans at Vanguard of Autonomous Vehicle Revolution