Uber is testing a freight delivery method that blends self-driving and conventional driver-operated trucks to relieve drivers from too much time spent away from home.
The so-called transfer hub system could go a long way toward lessening the effects of what’s seen as a permanent shortage of long-haul drivers. The employment gap continues to grow even as freight volume dramatically expands.
“It’s a very good highway logistics solution,” Michael Ramsey, autonomous vehicles analyst with Gartner Inc., told Trucks.com. “Instead of just saying ‘Hey, can we do this,’ they are looking at a real problem and addressing it.”
The industry needs about 50,000 new drivers now and the shortage will grow to about 100,000 drivers by 2023, Chris Spear, chief executive of the American Trucking Associations, told an autonomous vehicles seminar in Washington, D.C., earlier this month.
Uber’s focus on the trucker shortage is a more productive approach than tackling the complex issues surrounding last-mile delivery by autonomous truck, Ramsey said.
Autonomous trucks, either fully self-driving or outfitted with advanced driver assistance systems, are being looked at closely as one way to keep moving freight in an era when truck driving isn’t as appealing as it once was.
Uber Freight, an on-demand brokerage that links drivers with shipments via the same type of smartphone-based matching system Uber’s passenger car service uses, is running the test program.
It began late last year and has been running steadily since then, said Alden Woodrow, head of Uber’s self-driving truck development program.
The project isn’t intended primarily to test Uber’s self-driving trucks, said Eric Berdinis, product manager for Uber Freight. Instead, it’s designed to perfect the company’s idea of a hub system. Uber is still using its autonomous trucks to move consumer goods across Arizona, though, Berdinis said.
Human drivers are best-suited for delicate tasks such as maneuvering crowded city streets and labyrinth-like environs of ports, freight yard and warehouse complexes at this stage of autonomous vehicle development, Woodrow said.
But autonomous trucks may be best-suited for long-haul work because they eliminate issues humans face such as driver fatigue, daily drive-time limitations and the need to stop for meals, rest or sickness.
In Uber’s ongoing test, trucks operated by human drivers deliver freight to transfer hubs on the eastern and western borders of Arizona. At the hubs, the loaded trailers are hooked to self-driving Uber Freight tractors and hauled across the state to the opposing hub, where a conventional truck-and-driver team picks them up for delivery to their destination.
At this stage, because of various state laws regulating self-driving trucks, a human safety driver is behind the wheel of the self-driving trucks as they cross Arizona. So far there have been no safety-related incidents, a spokesperson for Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group told Trucks.com
Uber’s been concentrating on its California-Arizona test hub, based at the Topock Port of Entry station operated by Arizona’s transportation department.
In a test run late last month, an Uber Freight driver left Southern California with a full load in the morning, dropped his trailer at the Topock hub for later pickup by an east-bound Uber self-driving truck, hooked up to the trailer left earlier by the west-bound Uber truck and “was home for dinner that night,” Berdinis said. The round trip was about 500 miles.
“The driver doesn’t have to spend time waiting around, the trailer is ready when he gets there” because the Uber Freight app alerts drivers when loads are ready for pick up so they can properly time their arrival at the hub, he said.
Uber won’t disclose program particulars such as the number of trucks in operation, the shippers and freight companies it’s working with or the number of trips or miles that have been driven.
Woodrow did say that in addition to the Topock hub test, Uber is continuing to test its autonomous truck systems in two California locations – near its San Francisco headquarters and at its autonomous vehicles test center in nearby Pittsburgh.
Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group includes Uber Freight and the autonomous truck program – formerly called Otto – that ran a 120-mile, autonomous highway delivery of Budweiser beer in Colorado in 2016.
Uber has continued developing its self-driving truck system and will likely team with truck makers and freight companies to implement it in the marketplace as regulators permit, Woodrow said.
Uber isn’t alone: Embark, a self-driving truck systems developer working with Ryder Systems recently outfitted several tractors with its technology and used them to haul tractors filled with home appliances on long stretches of highway – up to 300 miles at a time – in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.
As with the Uber tests, human safety drivers sat behind the wheel during the Embark self-driving truck tests ready to take control if needed.
Tesla, which has shown a prototype all-electric Class 8 tractor, the Tesla Semi, also said it will be capable of autonomous operation as state and federal regulations permit.
Uber’s vision isn’t to make all truck trips autonomous, but rather “to shift the long-haul trips to self-driving and the short hauls to human drivers,” Woodrow said.
There’s still a lot of work to do before Uber gets a real product into the market, “but this is the future of moving freight,” he said.