Self-driving technology company Waymo and logistics giant C.H. Robinson will partner on a broad series of pilot programs to commercialize autonomous trucking.
They will use Waymo’s technology – known as the Waymo Driver – and its Waymo Via test fleet of trucks to start hauling freight for a C.H. Robinson customer between Dallas and Houston in the coming months.
“The demand and the interest are both really high. This is pointed at a really long-term problem. We’ve had a driver shortage in North America for decades,” said Chris O’Brien, chief commercial 0fficer at C.H. Robinson.
Although the eventual goal is to move freight along medium- and long-haul trucking routes without a human in the cab, these initial tests will still include a safety driver, the companies said in a Feb. 15 news conference.
Launching Autonomous Trucking
For now, the partners are looking at integrating autonomous driving technology into the supply chain network C.H. Robinson operates.
“C.H. Robinson’s size, scale and platform give us access to rich and unique transportation data along with customer relationships and pilot opportunities to help bring our Waymo Via solution to the market,” said Charlie Jatt, head of commercialization for trucking at Waymo.
Although the tests will commence sometime in the next few months, the companies have not committed to a specific date. Both companies said they see longer routes rather than short-haul as the best use for autonomous driving technology.
Waymo plans to market its autonomous driving technology as a service. It is working with truck builders such as Freightliner to integrate the robotic driving suite into their tractors. Freightliner would sell the truck, and Waymo would maintain the technology. Carriers and shippers would be the end-users. Jatt said Waymo doesn’t plan to build trucks or offer freight services.
The initial pilot programs by Waymo and other autonomous trucking developers such as Aurora Innovation and TuSimple are looking at a hub-to-hub service. Human drivers would operate trucks as they travel to depots close to a major highway. Autonomous trucks would then drive on the highways, where the technology companies say there are less complex and fewer random events to challenge the driving systems. A human would then take control of the load to its final destination.
Many early autonomous trucking tests occur in Texas and the Southwest because of favorable weather and road conditions. TuSimple has made seven drives in the Phoenix area delivering freight without a human safety driver in the cab of the test truck. Aurora said this week that it is teaming with U.S. Xpress to test its driving system in real-world conditions.
“We are seeing forward progress with trucking autonomy, and the announcements are important because they move us closer to commercialization. But we also are getting closer to the moment where these companies will have to determine if it makes sense to do it,” said Mike Ramsey, the automotive and smart mobility analyst at Gartner Inc. “It’s one thing to be able to do it, but the economics of autonomous trucking and all of the operational changes and requirements may not make it a realistic solution well into the future.”