Driverless vehicle race takes on freight
Waymo is expanding its business plan for self-driving vehicles beyond people to freight.
A test fleet of self-driving semi-trucks will hit the roads around Atlanta next week, carrying cargo to data centers of affiliate company Google.
The announcement made in a Waymo blog post Friday comes days after Uber said it’s testing self-driving trucks in Arizona. Both technology companies test the trucks with human operators behind the wheel who can take control in emergencies.
Automakers and technology companies are beginning to demonstrate the ability to make safe self-driving vehicles. But the big question is how any company will make money off them.
Friday’s announcements means Waymo — the autonomous-driving arm of Alphabet Inc., the company that also owns Google — is pushing ahead to move both people and goods with self-driving technology in order to turn a profit.
“This was a matter of when, not if,” said Sam Abuelsamid, Michigan-based automotive analyst with Navigant Research. “I think the truck market might be a good one for Waymo. ... The truck market is also going to be less price-sensitive and the manufacturers aren’t going to be as intent on having access to the data from the driving system. The question of access to data has been a sticking point for automotive (companies) because they want control of it and do not want to share.”
Sullivan, manager of product analysis at AutoPacific, believes long-haul freight is the perfect application for the technology.
“We know driving a truck is unhealthy and safety is always a concern,” he said. “It’s not hard to figure out where the real money is to be made in this race. Truck drivers are getting harder to come by and salaries are climbing. Imagine a truck that could drive across the country without needing a federally mandated break? Goods could move faster and safer.”
The pilot program is a partnership with Google’s logistics team, according to the blog post. Waymo will work with Google to develop its systems and integrate them into shipping operations and a network of factories, distribution centers, ports and terminals. The bright-blue trucks look no different from any semi-tractor, except for a sensor-bubble on the roof.
“Trucking is a vital part of the American economy, and we believe self-driving technology has the potential to make this sector safer and even stronger,” Waymo’s public relations team wrote in the blog post. “With Waymo in the driver’s seat, we can re-imagine many different types of transportation — from ride-hailing to logistics.”
Friday’s announcement came less than a month after the company got a permit to operate an autonomous ride-hailing service in Arizona.
Waymo’s approach is similar to what Ford Motor Co. has said it will do when it launches self-driving vehicles in 2021. The Dearborn automaker in late February announced it would be developing a business model for its self-driving fleet in Miami over the next few months. CEO Jim Hackett and other Ford leaders have said the company hopes to generate revenue from the self-driving vehicles by moving a mix of people and goods.
Ford has not revealed what its commercial self-driving vehicle will look like. The company currently tests “mule” Fusion hybrids outfitted with Ford’s software and hardware. While Waymo does not build any of the vehicles it’s currently testing, Ford does. And Ford is adamant that it will be the owner of whatever fleet it rolls out three years from now.
Waymo outfits Chrysler Pacifica minivans with its self-driving suite of sensors and software for its ride-hailing venture. The semi-trucks use the same suite of custom sensors as the minivan, according to the blog post.
The company agreed in early 2018 to buy thousands more Pacificas from Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. Waymo has around 600 vehicles in its fleet. Some of those are being tested in Metro Detroit. The company says it’s driven 5 million miles on public roads, and 5 billion miles in simulation.
General Motors Co. is frequently cited by analysts as the company most closely trailing — if not leading — Waymo in autonomous-vehicle development. The Detroit automaker announced in January it had submitted a federal safety proposal to put a robotic vehicle with no steering wheel or gas pedal on public roads in 2019. That vehicle is built on the all-electric Chevrolet Bolt EV platform. GM is targeting ride-hailing services with its 2019 launch.
GM and Ford could gain a lead on the Silicon Valley technology companies over the next few years due to the companies’ manufacturing capabilities, experts have said. Both carmakers contend they have the ability to quickly build their autonomous vehicles at scale as soon as they’re ready to launch.