Autonomous Waymo trucks learning lessons from lighter class

by Stephane Babcock

TORRANCE, Calif. — Before the industry began eyeing the possibility of driverless semis, there was a little car secretly driving around the country with no one at the wheel. This has now evolved into a new project, Waymo Via, which is looking to make autonomous trucking and local delivery a reality.

Google started with Project Chauffer in 2008 — seven self-driving cars that made their way around the country without causing too many people to notice. Fast-forward a dozen years, and that initial project has evolved into an entire company — Waymo.

Waymo autonomous vehicles
(Photo: Waymo)

“Our solution is being designed with fleets and other industry stakeholders to ensure we’re meeting their needs and will offer a service that not only addresses the challenges that exist in the industry today, but significantly moves the needle on these issues — whether that’s some of the driver recruitment challenges that persist in trucking or solving for efficiency gaps,” a Waymo representative told Heavy Duty Trucking magazine.

“We’re here to help make a tangible impact for our partners and help improve safety and the movement of goods at scale, with a reliable and dependable autonomous solution.”

For example, the company has been involved with different market and operational studies with industry stakeholders — a way to for both sides to understand how Waymo would successfully deploy autonomous vehicles in different industries.

These opportunities have allowed Waymo to get ahead of some of the questions that can’t be tested at the current scale of pilots: How will these trucks be maintained? What happens if an AV truck gets a flat tire? Which parts of the partner’s business have the strongest business case? What volumes can be supported on which lanes?

While there is some time before autonomous trucks hit the open highways in force, the company is working with its partners on a timeline for the paced adoption of this technology.

“It’s not going to be a flip the switch moment,” according to Waymo. “As the first and only company that has a fleet of fully driverless cars on the road and serves riders, we know that achieving fully driverless happens gradually and needs to be guided by a safe and responsible approach.”

And this approach will be incremental, introducing the technology in a responsible manner and heeding the opinion of both public and industry partners. Some of those involved include a group of veteran truck drivers with more than two decades of driving experience under each of their belts, with knowledge and expertise that Waymo has found invaluable.

“We continue to grow our partnerships with drivers and continue to build on their existing skillset in our self-driving roles.”

Currently, the Waymo fleet consists of Peterbilt Class 8 trucks that were purchased from the OEM and then had the Waymo Driver technology added to the platform. But, going forward, the company plans on working directly with OEMs to build custom vehicles for the Waymo Driver.

With 10 years of experience in light-duty autonomous technology, Waymo is able to transfer much of what they have learned into the heavy-duty world. It has seen success on the passenger car side, with its AVs serving real riders every day, including fully driverless rides.

“We have thousands of riders in the Metro Phoenix area using our service to get around. We are learning so much from a product perspective on how you take the technology we’ve been developing for over 10 years and turn it into a commercial service,” said the Waymo rep.

This experience has also allowed the company to understand the technical challenges involved and the best places to focus its efforts both to solve and overcome any challenges.  

“By pursuing both Waymo One (our ride-hailing service) and Waymo Via (trucking and local delivery) in parallel, what we learn with one area directly helps improve the other area, and that relationship goes both ways. We aren’t just taking what we’ve learned from cars and applying it to trucks. We are taking what we learn with our trucks and the business use case and applying that back to ride-hailing and the car platform.”

Waymo Via local delivery is currently operational in the Phoenix, Arizona, area. The company is exploring how the Waymo Driver can provide both customer and operational benefits, making deliveries on behalf of clients safely, efficiently, and, eventually, at scale.

One such local delivery partnership involves AutoNation, a retailer that provides new and pre-owned vehicles, as well as associated services. The AVs are delivering car parts to and from dealerships, and UPS, where the trucks are shuttling packages between UPS stores and its Tempe hub.

And while there are obvious differences between light- and heavy-duty vehicles, Waymo has been able to take the experiences from the passenger AVs and transition that knowledge into the Class 8 template.

“We’ve solved a lot of core challenges on the passenger car side that have given us an advantage in trucking, but there are still areas we need to focus on specifically for trucking whether it’s the longer response time needed (which affects perception and planning) or the way maneuvers become more challenging with a larger and heavier vehicle (and things that cut across both, like driving in inclement weather),” said Waymo.

  • This article originally appeared at www.truckinginfo.com, and is reproduced under an editorial sharing agreement between Today’s Trucking and Heavy Duty Trucking magazines.

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  • While this is a very interesting topic for our industry, leading to a lot of new questions as to the operation of vehicles utilising this new technology. My nagging question, especially in the face of the nuclear verdicts that our industry is facing, is who is liable in a lawsuit when an automated truck is involved in a collision. Will the plaintiff go after the manufacturer for building the system that had the collision?

    Or after the programmer for telling the system what to do?

    Or the equipment owner/trucking company who owns the vehicle, but no longer has any control over how it is operated?

    If it is a maintenance negligence issue, that is clear, but if the issue relates to the operation of the equipment, who is responsible?

    And once the OEMs are faced with the liability of the operation of the truck, how interested are they going to be in continuing to develop this technology?

    I haven’t seen much about this facet of the push for automation, and wonder how much this will change the face of the industry.