Autonomous driving technology company Waymo has teamed up with Arkansas-based transportation logistics company J.B. Hunt for a pilot project designed to test the use of Waymo’s autonomous driving in moving freight.
Texas has been selected as the state to trial the collaboration in. Waymo will use its Class 8 autonomous trucks to transport goods between Houston and Fort Worth via the Interstate 45 for one of J.B. Hunt’s customers. The Waymo Driver autonomous platform will be used to operate the truck, but the vehicle will not be totally unmanned – a commercially licensed truck driver, a Waymo software technician, and a Waymo autonomous driving specialist will be on board to oversee and monitor the operation.
The Waymo Driver platform is actually Level 4, meaning it can operate without needing a human safety driver – although only when the weather is good and only on certain routes. Of course, the ultimate goal is for Waymo to have driverless autonomous trucks zipping around the whole US, but this is some time away.
We first reported on Waymo’s intention to bring self-driving trucks to Texas last year, and it seems this is that intention coming to fruition. This pilot project is seen as the first major step in making the Waymo Driver platform commercially viable. In a statement, Charlie Jatt, Waymo’s Head of Commercialization for Trucking, said: “We’re thrilled to collaborate with J.B. Hunt as we advance and commercialize the Waymo Driver. Our teams share an innovative and safety-first mindset as well as a deep appreciation for the potential benefits of autonomous driving technology in trucking. It’s companies and relationships like these that will make this technology a commercial reality in the coming years.”
Waymo already has an autonomous taxi service in operation. It had a successful launch in Phoenix, Arizona last year, although there was some controversy due to one of its self-driving taxis going rogue in Chandler, Arizona last month. It seems there are still some kinks to be ironed out – the road to fully autonomous vehicles becoming commonplace is very long and quite bumpy.
Looking ahead to the potential expansion of the new collaboration in Texas with J.B. Hunt, it’s clear that there will be advantages of this technology for freight companies. Unlike human drivers, autonomous vehicles do not suffer from fatigue and can drive non-stop. Autonomous vehicles will also arguably be safer in the long-term due to the elimination of human error.
This could be bad news for truck drivers – but not just yet. Craig Harper, Chief Sustainability Officer at J.B. Hunt, said: “While we believe there will be a need for highly skilled, professional drivers for many years to come, it is important for J.B. Hunt as an industry leader to be involved early in the development of advanced autonomous technologies and driving systems to ensure that their implementation will improve efficiency while enhancing safety.”