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Uber, Waymo, Starsky Robotics confirm self-driving truck tests – reports

12 March 2018 Stephanie Brinley, MBA

The testing of self-driving trucks is increasing in the United States, with Uber, Waymo, and start-up Starsky Robotics all taking unique approaches.

IHS Markit perspective

  • Implications: Waymo, Uber, and younger start-up Starsky Robotics have announced in recent days expansions and new testing of self-driving Class 8 commercial trucks.
  • Outlook: Testing of self-driving technology for the commercial truck and freight business is increasing, in addition to ongoing testing of platooning, while Ford is testing delivery services in Florida and Michigan. Unique approaches to the testing of autonomous technology are being taken by Waymo, Uber, and Starsky, providing unique opportunities.

Waymo has announced that it will begin testing self-driving trucks in the Atlanta, Georgia (United States) area this week (beginning 12 March), in addition to testing in California and Arizona already undertaken. The announcement was made in a post to the blog site Medium by Waymo CEO John Krafcik on 9 March. Under the pilot project, self-driving trucks will carry freight bound for Google's data centres, Krafcik wrote. "Over the past year, we've been conducting road tests of Waymo's self-driving trucks in California and Arizona. Our 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… We've been able to make rapid progress because our driver –  Waymo's self-driving technology  –  is not only experienced, but adaptable," Krafcik wrote. The pilot project will further develop Waymo's technology and allow the company to integrate it into the operations of shippers and carriers and the networks of factories, distribution centres, ports, and terminals. Waymo states that, throughout the testing, "highly trained" drivers will be in the cabs to monitor and take control as needed. The trucks, according to Kracik's post, use the same suite of custom-built sensors as the company's purpose-built self-driving Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans.

Separately, Uber has announced that its self-driving trucks are being used as part of its Uber Freight service in the state of Arizona. The company released a video showing the driver responsible for the self-driving truck transferring its load to another truck and driver, announcing that it has been testing its Volvo-built self-driving trucks across Arizona. Uber's truck met a driver who brought a load from Los Angeles near the Arizona border. The two trucks swapped loads, with the Los Angeles driver picking up goods to take back. Uber's Advanced Technology Group is deploying the self-driving trucks through the Uber Freight system, launched in May 2017, similar to how the Uber ride-hailing network is deploying self-driving cars in its testing system, reports Techcrunch. In the Uber system, a short-haul trucker takes the load to a transfer hub. The load is transferred to a long-haul freight transport, using a mostly highway run which is done by the self-driving system. The human driver takes over at the end of the journey. Uber Freight is a system that Uber already operates to handle load sourcing for the trucking industry. Uber has been using the trucks for the past few months, although the company had not announced the moves until March, reports the New York Times. Alden Woodrow, product manager of Uber's self-driving truck unit, reportedly said, "We think self-driving technology has tremendous potential to solve some of the big problems that the trucking industry has today." So far, Uber has not confirmed how many trucks it has operated or how many miles they have driven as part of the testing.

Along with Uber and Waymo, driverless trucks start-up company Starsky Robotics has begun testing an autonomous truck in the US state of Florida, reports Wired. The company demonstrated the vehicle on a seven-mile trip with no driver in February. Starsky reportedly expects to start making completely driverless deliveries in Florida by the end of 2018 with at least one truck. Rather than a driver being present to take the wheel on surfaced streets, Starsky's technology uses remote monitors. Wired reports that currently the company uses four truck drivers, but eventually it sees the remote operators monitoring 10–30 vehicles per hour, using video links and a videogame-style wheel to control the vehicle as needed. Starsky's website states, "We're working to make trucks autonomous on the highway and remote controlled by drivers for the first and last mile. Our trucks will make roads safer while giving drivers meaningful work close to their homes and families."

Separate from these testing updates, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal reports that the US state of Wisconsin is considering building up the shoulders of a main expressway to use as traffic lanes for self-driving trucks, specifically to serve the Foxconn Technology Group factory being built in a city near Milwaukee. Foxconn Technology Group builds flatscreen TVs and is interested in using autonomous trucks to move equipment from the airport to its factory.

Outlook and implications

Testing of self-driving technology for the commercial truck and freight business is increasing, in addition to ongoing testing of platooning, while Ford is testing delivery services in Florida and Michigan. Unique approaches to the testing of autonomous technology are being taken by Waymo, Uber, and Starsky, providing unique opportunities.

News of the Waymo and Uber tests are surfacing after the two settled an acrimonious lawsuit over self-driving truck technology. Being a fellow Alphabet company enables Waymo to work with Google in a relatively closed corporate system. Presuming Google is more willing to share information with a corporate sibling, Waymo has the opportunity to learn more quickly what will be necessary to integrate autonomous technology into factory and distribution system networks. While Waymo has not formally confirmed which Class 8 truck is being used, photographs suggest it is working with a Peterbilt truck. Uber is working with Volvo Trucks, a separate company from Volvo Cars, which Uber works with on its self-driving ride-hailing vehicle programme. Waymo is also not new to testing, with the first reports of Waymo's testing of self-driving trucks surfacing in mid-2017.

Uber's demonstration was also meant to show how self-driving trucks could be applied to short-haul trucking, and keeps the operation of its test truck within the state of Arizona for now. This is not Uber's first demonstration, as the self-driving trucking company it purchased in 2016, Otto, performed its first run in 2016.

The Starsky Robotics approach is different again, as it is looking to more quickly reach a point where there are no drivers in its trucks. Although Starsky's testing is being done in Florida, the company was among those supporting a recent change in California's regulations to allow self-driving testing with remote drivers.

The potential Wisconsin project is among the first examples of a US state looking to address changes to state infrastructure to accommodate self-driving trucks, although the decision is not final. The state administration has begun a USD500-million expansion of this particular freeway, and has applied for USD246 million in federal grant money for the overall project.

About this article

The above article is from AutoIntelligence Daily by IHS Markit. AutoIntelligence Daily provides same-day analysis of automotive news, events and trends. Get a free trial.

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