Waymo Starts Self-Driving Truck Pilot, Autonomous Race Speeds Up

March 09, 2018 by Chris O'Brien, @obrien

Capping a frenzied week in the development of self-driving trucks, Waymo announced a pilot test of its own autonomous trucks Friday.

While Waymo has primarily been making noise for its self-driving cars, the autonomous vehicle unit of Alphabet has also been working on a version of the technology for long-haul trucking. In a blog post Friday, the company noted that it has been testing its self-driving trucks over the past year in California and Arizona.

Now it will put the trucks into action delivering freight from Atlanta to data centers operated by its sister company, Google.

“Atlanta is one of the biggest logistics hubs in the country, making it a natural home for Google’s logistical operations and the perfect environment for our next phase of testing Waymo’s self-driving trucks,” the company wrote. “This pilot, in partnership with Google’s logistics team, will let us further develop our technology and integrate it into the operations of shippers and carriers, with their network of factories, distribution centers, ports and terminals.”

The announcement is the latest sign of the accelerated pace at which autonomous trucking is moving from sci-fi to reality. And it’s also an indication of the emerging competition to win what could eventually be an enormous and transformative market. Trucking is a $700 billion industry in the U.S. About 70 percent of the nation’s freight by weight moves via trucks, according to the American Trucking Associations.

Earlier this week, Uber revealed that it is testing a hybrid freight delivery system that mixes self-driving and driver-operated trucks designed to reduce fatigue for truckers and long absences from home. Uber’s transfer hub system is aimed at creating a short-term solution for the shortage of drivers and the high turnover.

Just two days later, San Francisco-based startup Starsky Robotics announced it had raised $16.5 million of venture capital for its autonomous trucking technology and completed a 7-mile run without a human in the cab. The company claims it was the first such feat.

Now comes Waymo, which says its trucks will include a human in the cab. Still, Waymo has other intrinsic advantages, including its parent company Alphabet which has unlimited resources to invest in the project. Waymo also has a willing and huge test partner in Google.

Waymo is using semi-tractors that it acquired from Peterbilt and added its self-driving technology. While the trucks are capable of carrying the full 80,000-pound weight of a loaded big rig, the actual weights tested will depend on the type of shipment, a Waymo spokeswoman said.

The trucks will conform to federal driving regulations. For example, they will be equipped with an electronic logging device that digitally tracks how long a driver operates a truck to make sure they comply with federal rules.

Waymo, however, is limiting the self-driving trucks to local routes rather than the type of long hauls where the driving limits are most likely to come into play for the human in the cab supervising the robotic controls.

In the blog post, Waymo said that its “software is learning to drive big rigs in much the same way a human driver would after years of driving passenger cars. The principles are the same, but things like braking, turning, and blind spots are different with a fully-loaded truck and trailer.”

Still, Waymo said it’s been able to make rapid progress because its trucking tech shares many of the same components developed for its self-driving minivan, including sensors and software. The company has been testing fully driverless cars in Arizona over the past year. It has been developing its autonomous vehicle technology for almost a decade now.

The advent of autonomous trucking has the potential to have an enormous impact on the U.S. economy as trucks still carry much of the freight hauled across the nation. Not only could such technology address the industry’s chronic labor issues, but the potential reduction of transportation costs for countless products could inspire new delivery services and products.

“Trucking is a vital part of the American economy, and we believe self-driving technology has the potential to make this sector safer and even stronger,” Waymo executives wrote. “With Waymo in the driver’s seat, we can reimagine many different types of transportation — from ride-hailing to logistics.”

Read next: Why Trucking and Logistics Will Lead the Autonomous Vehicle Revolution

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