All the work Waymo is doing developing self-driving cars is going to find its way into freight and trucking.
That’s the assessment of John Krafcik, who heads Waymo, formerly known as Google’s Self-Driving Car Project.
In a recent presentation at the Los Angeles Auto Show, Krafcik outlined Waymo’s plans for creating a business out of the company’s autonomous vehicle technology.
Waymo has been testing Chrysler Pacificas outfitted with its self-driving technology on public roads in Phoenix. This spring, the company tapped residents to participate in its “Early Riders” program, giving locals an opportunity to hail the vans via a smartphone app for tasks like commuting or errands.
Within 24 hours of announcing the program, 10,000 hand raisers in the Chandler and Phoenix areas volunteered to help Waymo define the future of self-driving cars.
Early riders were accompanied by a human operator sitting behind the wheel as a safety net. But in November, Waymo moved its operator to the back seat as a way to advance testing and provide even more of a driverless experience.
Other companies also are testing robotaxis.
General Motors has a fleet of autonomous Chevrolet Bolt electric cars making loops in San Francisco, where constant traffic, steep grades and windy roads pose significant hurdles. The theory is that the more complicated the route, the smarter the system will become.
That’s because engineers – GM has its self-driving lab nearby – will refine and apply the system’s learnings back into the technology. By 2019 GM says its fleet of self-driving taxis will be ready to go. It is the first automaker to name a deadline for real-world deployment.
Although GM’s objective is to eventually build and sell autonomous vehicles, Waymo has different goals.
“We we're really not a car company. Our job is to make the world's most experienced drivers,” Krafcik said.
It turns out, however, that the driver he’s discussing actually is a suite of sensors and computers rather than a human. Waymo’s technology is mix of in-house software and hardware.
“The real magic sauce is with the integration of that software with our own homegrown hardware,” Krafcik said. “We've developed our own vision systems, we've developed our own radar,we've developed three different short-range, medium-range and long-range Lidar systems.”
How this technology will be applied remains to be seen, but Krafcik said the company is evaluating several applications.
“The first way we'll be going to the market is with the Waymo transportation service,” Krafcik said. More details are to come early next year.
Trucking looks to be another venture.
“It makes sense for logistics and trucking, and moving goods from place to place,” Krafcik said. “We've shared a little bit about putting the same speed sensors and computers into a large, Class 8 truck.”
“The good news is it works very well with very little modification required to drive a very big truck down the road. So there's more to come on that,” he said.
“We've also had a lot of interest from [automakers] on personal use and licensing applications,” Krafcik said. “I think we can easily imagine those sorts of applications going forward.”
At a Cornell University conference in September, Krafcik said a commercial roll out of self-driving technology could come in trucks before cars.
Waymo has installed its self-driving technology on a single Class 8 Peterbilt truck and has started tests in California and Arizona.
Last year, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office awarded Google a patent for a self-driving delivery truck.
Google envisions a typical delivery truck – similar to what UPS and FedEx use – with lockers on the outside. The truck would robotically drive to a home or office and digitally signal the recipient that their package had arrived. The individual would walk out to the van, type a code into the locker’s keypad and collect their package.
With all of its vehicles, Waymo just topped 4-million driverless miles on public roads.
The company is hearing from cities around the world that are interested in how this technology can help solve their transportation problems.
The hurdle is “unwrapping the last mile, very challenging last mile, and getting people from their homes or work to assisting public transport infrastructure is something we're also working out,” Krafcik said.