Waymo Continues Autonomous Trucking Development Push

October 13, 2020 by Jerry Hirsch, @Jerryhirsch

Waymo, the self-driving unit of Google owner Alphabet Inc., is talking more about its push into autonomous trucking.

The company said Tuesday that it has tested self-driving trucks in California, Georgia, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas and sees a wide variety of applications for the technology in commercial vehicles.

Whether with a human or a robot, driving a big rig is a challenge, Waymo says.

Drivers must control an 80,000-pound semi-truck at 65 mph, merge across lanes in traffic, account for blind spots and keep the truck and trailer within in narrow lanes.

“Not only is truck driving a tough job, but serious crashes can also occur. More than one in three long-haul truck drivers have experienced a serious crash during their careers. The trucking industry values safety deeply and is constantly seeking innovations to improve statistics like these. By bringing self-driving technology to trucking, we can make every mile traveled safer,” Waymo said in its blog.

Waymo relies on experienced truck drivers to help develop its robotic driving system, or Waymo Driver.

“By working with the engineering teams and sharing all about truck behavior and the rules of the road, I’m helping the Waymo Driver see and learn what I have. It’s my job to impart the lessons I’ve learned the hard way,” said Jon Rainwater, a trucker who provides instruction to the test drivers for Waymo.

The company’s truck system has significant changes from what Waymo is using in self-driving passenger car development.

“Trucks spend a lot more time on freeways, which are higher-speed environments. They also have a lot more mass, are slower to accelerate and brake than passenger cars, requiring a distance of nearly two football fields to come to a stop, and they have trailers that can move independently from the tractor,” Waymo said.

They take more time and space to maneuver and can have different blind spots than cars.

“We increased the number of sensors we apply to the trucks. The most noticeable difference is that our trucks feature two perception domes versus the single iconic perception dome on our passenger cars. The dual perception domes on our trucks help increase rear visibility by reducing blind spots caused by the trailer,” the company said.

Autonomous trucks also must be able to respond to specific hazards that can be different than passenger vehicles.

“We encounter several situations driving on freeways that we do not frequently see on surface streets, including navigating metering lights when getting onto a ramp and moving over a lane when another vehicle stops on the shoulder to give them room,” Waymo said.

Another challenge is dealing with construction zones and median crossovers that direct traffic to what the robot would typically think is the wrong side of the road.

“Training the Waymo Driver to navigate a variety of these scenarios allows us to unlock additional freeway driving capabilities not only for our trucks but for the entire fleet,” the company said.

Earlier this year, Waymo began testing heavy-duty Peterbilt trucks in Texas.

The company is focusing test efforts on the southwest shipping corridor as part of its plans to launch autonomous trucking and develop partnerships. The region is a popular area for self-driving vehicle tests because of generally good roads and weather.

Waymo has not made public its timeline for starting commercial operations with autonomous trucks.

Jerry Hirsch July 15, 2020
Navistar and autonomous truck startup TuSimple said they will co-develop self-driving semi-trucks targeted for production by 2024.

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