Self-driving trucks appear to be riding in the fast lane on the road toward an autonomous era of travel.
In a single week, Uber revealed that it has been testing automated trucks on Arizona highways since November, culminating in a 344-mile autonomous journey conducted under the supervision of a human safety driver. Not to be outdone, upstart Starsky Robotics announced that it had completed a seven-mile automated trip in Florida without any humans onboard. The next day, Waymo unveiled a new pilot project involving self-driving trucks that will be based in Atlanta.
An unspecified number of trucks will begin carrying cargo bound for Google’s data centers. The project will focus on expanding the company’s imprint in logistics as much as training the self-driving systems.
“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,” company officials 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..”
Although adjustments are required to allow for the braking distances, blind spots, and turning radius of big rigs, company officials say the underlying technology is the same as what has been honed in more than five-million miles of public-road testing, most recently on Waymo’s fleet of self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans deployed in the greater Phoenix area. Waymo has already been testing its trucks in California and Arizona with the same custom-built sensor suite that is fitted to the Pacificas.
Expanding its footprint in the trucking industry has been one of Waymo’s well-documented goals. In October 2017, John Krafcik, the company’s chief executive officer, said trucking was essentially the low-hanging fruit in the deployment of self-driving technology.
“Trucking makes a lot of sense,” he said at the time. “Ride sharing, ride hailing, trucking, logistics all make a lot of sense. We’re focused on building a really safe, capable driver, and we can deploy that for a lot of different reasons.”
The biggest reason is, of course, related to economics. According to the American Trucking Associations, the industry generated $676.2 billion in 2016, the latest full year for which figures are available. That equates to 79.8 percent of the nation’s freight bill, according to the ATA. Automated systems could increase that revenue. Although approximately 3.5 million Americans are employed as truck drivers, there’s a shortage of approximately 50,000 drivers right now. That shortage, combined with high turnover in the industry, has put a spotlight on the ways automated trucks could augment the current industry.
Over the long term, there’s fear that autonomous technology could displace many of those jobs. Stefan Seltz-Axmacher, CEO and co-founder of Starsky Robotics, sees automated technologies as complementary to human jobs rather than competitive, with autonomous tech handling long stretches of interstate travel while humans take over to negotiate more complex urban routes and by guiding trucks from remote operations centers.
“We’ve never stopped envisioning how technology can help solve this trucking-industry challenge and offer its disaffected workers newer, safer opportunities,” he said. “We’re making trucks autonomous for the long, boring stretches of highway where driving is easy—and remote-controlled where driving requires a human touch. Rather than spending weekends at distant truck stops, we want drivers to spend them watching their daughters’ soccer games.” There’s little indication that anyone has asked childless drivers who enjoy the job how they feel about this whole thing, but the economic incentives to robotize the task are evident.
While their business plans have their own permutations, the collective recent developments from Uber, Starsky Robotics, and now Waymo show how hard these tech companies are working to make trucking one of the first areas where autonomous technology makes a substantial impact.