Update: On Friday, March 9, 2018, Waymo announced that next week, it will start testing its self-driving trucks in Georgia, delivering unspecified cargo bound for its sister company Google’s data centers in Atlanta (with human safety drivers at the wheel, just in case). The company hasn’t made public its plans to commercialize this technology, but robo-trucking is clearly a big opportunity: Earlier this week, Uber announced a similar test program in Arizona, and startup Starsky Robotics sent its semi on a ride down a public road in Florida with nobody inside. This story, about the budding and booming self-driving truck market, originally ran on June 2, 2017.
With the likes of Daimler, Volvo, and Uber working on self-driving trucks, it’s no surprise that the granddaddy of autonomous vehicles, Waymo, is getting in on the big-rig action too. Waymo (formerly the Google driverless car program, and now a standalone company under the Alphabet umbrella) is working to commercialize its technology, and today confirmed it’s exploring how its self-driving know-how can transform the trucking industry.
“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. That’s true. Truck crashes kill 4,000 people on US roads every year, and injure 116,000 more.
But there’s also a compelling commercial argument. There’s a shortage of truck drivers now, which the American Trucking Associations predicts could worsen, leaving the industry short 175,000 drivers by 2024. Computers could pick up some of that slack, and also cut down on crashes that cost businesses money and time.
Waymo has eight years of data on how to build autonomous vehicles, and now it’s figuring out how to apply that to trucks, rather than passenger cars. Waymo has started on its private track in California while it works out the details like where to put the sensors on 53-foot trailers, and how hard a truck can safely brake and accelerate. Later this year it’s planning road tests in Arizona, with a human backup behind the wheel.
Over the long term, Waymo hopes to have autonomous trucks tackle the long, monotonous routes, with humans doing more complex local driving. Technologically, that makes sense. Without things like traffic lights or pedestrians, interstate driving is relatively simple. Google’s test vehicles were cruising highways back in 2012. Navigating surface streets is a tougher proposition, especially in a large vehicle where a small mistake can do serious damage.
That strategy implies, however, that Waymo may have to break from a core tenet of its approach: that the best way to operate an autonomous vehicle is with zero human involvement, ever. Trucks may spend the vast majority of their time on the highway, but they still need to navigate local roads at some point. That likely means involving a flesh and blood driver, at least if it wants a working system anytime soon. And as well as dealing with that tough, last mile, driving, the human on board has a few crucial roles that a computer still can’t perform. Pumping gas for example, or performing quick maintenance tasks like knocking ice off brakes. But given reportedly increased pressure from Alphabet to start making money, Waymo may be willing to compromise.
Whatever it decides, the trucking world has become a whole lot more interesting in recent years. As well as the established truck makers, smaller companies are vying for a piece of the 18-wheel action. It wouldn’t be surprising if Tesla’s semi-truck, due to be unveiled in September, has some self-driving skills. Startup Starsky Robotics is building remote-control big-rigs, where a human can dial in and drive the tricky bits. Peloton Technology is working out how to string chains of autonomous trucks together so they can slipstream each other like a massive highway train. Waymo may be the granddad of self-driving cars, but when it comes to trucks, it’s just another startup.