While Ford has spent much of the year talking about its plans for connected cars and cities, it’s back to talking about the trucks and SUVs it’s going to sell to consumers to pay for all that advanced technology. But Ford is striving to be known for its hybrid vehicles and steal thunder from every other company trying to get in the electric car game.
On Thursday, in Dearborn, Michigan, Ford’s head of global markets Jim Farley revealed the automaker’s product plans going into the next decade, most of which are trucks and SUVs that will feature a traditional hybrid system or be plug-ins of some kind. These vehicles will also be equipped with features such as 4G LTE from the end of next year and automatic emergency braking as Ford…
Having put its first fleet of fully self-driving cars on the road, Waymo is turning its attention to self-driving trucks.
Since its beginnings as Google’s self-driving car project in 2009, Waymo has focused on getting passengers from A to B with AI at the wheel. Its autonomous vehicles have driven five million miles and navigated complex streets, and along the way the company has launched its own reference vehicle, Firefly.
Now, as an independent enterprise, Waymo has turned its attention to logistics. Its self-driving truck pilot will launch in Atlanta, Georgia, this week, carrying cargo bound for Google’s data centres.
The past year has seen Waymo road test its trucks in California and Arizona, adapting its self-driving technology to cope with the different braking, turning, and blind spot needs that come with fully laden articulated vehicles.
As one of the biggest logistical hotspots in the country, Atlanta was an obvious candidate for the pilot, as well as a natural environment for Google’s own logistical operations.
The pilot was announced in a blog post from Waymo:
“This pilot, in partnership with Google’s logistics team, will let us further develop our technology and integrate it into the operations of shippers and carriers, with their network of factories, distribution centres, ports, and terminals.
As our self-driving trucks hit the highways in the region, we’ll have highly-trained drivers in the cabs to monitor systems and take control if needed.
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We hope that this repurposing of Waymo’s self-driving technology for delivery trucks speaks to its capabilities and growing maturity. Here, apparently, is AI technology that is not only advanced, but flexible too.
By using the same suite of proprietary sensors, its cameras and LiDAR system, the software can apply all it has learnt from self-driving cars to trucks – and presumably apply that data to both sets of vehicles on the road, such as when an autonomous car meets a driverless truck in difficult driving conditions.
Waymo says it has put five million self-driven miles on the clock and five billion in simulation, after almost a decade in the business. This will stand it in good stead to become a major player in what will be a huge self-driving truck industry.
Waymo’s blog post refers to trucking as a vital part of the American economy, and claims that the technology has the potential to make this sector “safer and even stronger”. While this may be true, it needs urgent qualification, because it certainly won’t appear so to the millions of professional drivers in the US.
Estimates vary, but the American Trucking Association (ATA) says that there are 3.5 million truck drivers currently working in America, shifting 70 percent of the country’s entire freight tonnage. Nearly nine million jobs are supported by the road freight industry alone, according to the ATA.
Other estimates suggest that 3.5 million is the total number of professional driving jobs in the US, with freight haulage being the most common. Whichever is correct, truck driving is certainly the most common job in many US states – particularly in the logistical hotspot around Georgia.
US government statistics reveal that many more people work as taxi drivers, bus drivers, and in other professional driving positions, again supporting millions of jobs.
So for companies such as Waymo and Google, and their growing number of rivals in this sector, autonomous vehicles may represent an enormous opportunity, but also a significant social, cultural, and economic risk for the country.
In many areas of automation, companies talk of AI and robotics augmenting human employees and allowing them to offload menial or repetitive tasks. But one person’s menial task is another person’s life and heritage. When it comes to self-driving vehicles and logistics, therefore, the job losses could be stark when there is no longer a person sitting behind the windshield – or no longer a cab at all.
That said, perhaps Waymo is pitching itself at filling a human need, rather than replacing employees. In its latest statistical roundup, the ATA estimates that there may be more than 115,000 unfilled truck driving positions in the US.
Alphabet’s self-driving arm is expanding beyond passenger vehicles into autonomous freight trucks. The company, called Waymo, is testing its driverless trucks in Atlanta, Ga., by shipping cargo for its sister company, Google.
But Waymo — a pioneer of the self-driving industry — is entering a space already crowded by competitors, including Uber, with the same challenges facing the passenger vehicle space: How does it plan to commercialize the technology?
Waymo has explored multiple business strategies, according to people familiar with the matter. But it doesn’thave a built-in path to market the way Uber does. The ride-hail company launched a trucking logistics platform, called Uber Freight, that matches commercial truck drivers with companies looking to ship cargo, close to a year after it acquired self-driving trucking startup, Otto.
Of course, using an in-house logistics platform is not the only way to approach the driverless trucking industry. Trucking startup Embark, which has raised a little more than $ 17.2 million in funding, is taking the partnership approach instead. The company is working with commercial fleet management company Ryder to ship Frigidaire refrigerators.
Like both Uber and Embark, Waymo needs to strike a manufacturing partnership to build these trucks. That’s where Tesla, which recently unveiled its self-driving electric freight trucks, could have a leg up. As the original equipment manufacturer, Tesla’s primary path to market is fairly straightforward: Selling the trucks to other companies.
All that said, the driverless trucking space is in its infancy, and given Waymo’s clear technological lead, the company may seem like an attractive partner for manufacturers and commercial shippers alike.
Alphabet has been public about its move into driverless trucking since Waymo was formed in late 2016, but it may not have always been the plan, at least according to recent testimonies. As part of Alphabet’s lawsuit against Uber over the acquisition of Otto, Otto co-founder and former Google Maps employee Lior Ron testified that he originally wanted to try to work on driverless trucks at Alphabet alongside Waymo. But the company wasn’t interested, he said.
In fact, he decided to sell the company to Uber — instead of staying at Alphabet or selling to Lyft — because it was one of the few places that was open to creating a driverless trucking service.
As many industry experts have predicted, autonomous trucks may hit the road en masse much faster than passenger vehicles, largely because teaching software how to drive on the highway is much easier than teaching software how to drive on local streets where there are many more variables.
Uber’s autonomous trucks have been transporting cargo for commercial freight customers across Arizona’s highways for several months. Like many trials of this kind of technology, human drivers are on board in case of emergency.
Eventually, Uber hopes that trucks will be to drive themselves without supervision, but humans will still play a role in the delivery process. The plan is to use self-driving vehicles to carry freight along highways, while human drivers will take over for shorter drives, like the journey to the recipient’s loading dock down country roads.
The long-term plan for Uber Freight is a relatively straightforward expansion of the company’s ride-hailing service. Autonomous vehicles will deposit their cargo (as far as we know, still unloaded by human hands) at transfer hubs, and human drivers can pick up work via an app, which has been used to connect truckers with haulage jobs since May 2017.
Alden Woodrow, product manager for Uber’s self-driving truck unit, told the New York Times that the company was opting to “focus the development of our technology on the highway only.” There are no plans to develop self-driving technology that’s capable of backing up to a loading dock, or safely maneuvering around a crowded industrial area, at least for the time being.
Uber’s decision to let human drivers tackle the trickier parts of freight delivery isn’t too unusual. Tesla has only been talking up the Enhanced Autopilot functionality of its Semi, rather than full autonomy. Startups like Embark and Starsky Robotics are hard at work figuring out how best to tackle the hand-off to a human, as per a report from Wired.
Still, one thing seems clear – some portion of freight jobs is going to be swept up by self-driving vehicles. The trucking industry looks set to be hit hard by automation, and sooner rather than later.
The company provided little detail on the scale of the operation.
Uber’s self-driving trucks are now delivering commercial freight in Arizona, the company announced on Tuesday. This marks the beginning of the company realizing the ambitions it laid out when acquiring self-driving trucking startup, Otto, in August 2016.
Uber’s acquisition of Otto has not been without its roadblocks, however. Most notably, there was Alphabet’s lawsuit against the company over the acquisition, something Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said, when he agreed to settle the suit, could have been handled better.
But, as Recode first reported, there was also tension within the self-driving department over which of Uber’s two autonomous efforts took priority — was it the cars or trucks? Staffers who joined Uber as part of the Otto acquisition worried trucks would take a back seat to Uber’s original driverless ambitions of building cars to be used in its ride-hail network.
While former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick said he wanted to acquire Otto as a means to hire one of its co-founders, Anthony Levandowski, Levandowski’s partner Lior Ron testified during the Alphabet lawsuit that being able to develop driverless trucks was non-negotiable. In fact, he decided to sell the company to Uber, instead of staying at Alphabet or selling to Lyft, because it was one of the few places that was open to creating a driverless trucking service.
Though Uber has spent the better part of its driverless PR efforts on promoting its semi-autonomous Volvos, it appears its driverless trucking efforts are a bit further along. It’s not because the trucks are more technically capable of driving autonomously than the cars — in fact, driving autonomously on the highway as these trucks are doing is much easier than driving on city streets — it’s because Uber has actually managed to commercialize the trucks.
The company wouldn’t specify how many self-driving trucks were operating in Arizona nor how many companies it was working with or the number of shipments that have been delivered. Uber simply said its self-driving trucks had performed “thousands” of rides since the beginning of the year, a “significant portion” of which have been in autonomous mode.
So it’s impossible to tell how much money the company has made from the shipments they’ve delivered with these trucks, and it’s likely it’d be a drop in the bucket compared to how much Uber has spent and will continue to spend on developing, retrofitting and owning the trucks.
But, it is one of the first few examples of a company actually commercializing autonomous vehicles as a service. Uber isn’t alone in the space, however. In fact, trucking startup Embark beat the company to the punch and started shipping Frigidaire refrigerators between Texas and California late last year.
Uber is beginning to operate — in however small a scale — what could be an interesting new revenue stream for the company. Creating the foundation for that is not exactly an inexpensive endeavor, however.
Uber has been building out the logistics end of its trucking service, called Uber Freight, and officially launched the platform in May 2017. It essentially operates like an Uber for freight wherein the company matches commercial shippers with truck drivers looking for a job.
So, as there is for its autonomous cars with the existing ride-hail network, there is a built-in path to market for Uber’s autonomous trucks. As many industry experts have predicted, autonomous trucks may hit the road in a meaningful way much faster than passenger vehicles, largely because teaching software how to drive on the highway is much easier than teaching software how to drive on local streets where there are many more variables.
That’s why the trucks will hand control back to the driver when exiting the highway or freeway. In fact, the vehicle operator will have full discretion over when to engage and disengage the autonomous technology on the highways — just like in Teslas.
That means there’ll still be drivers in the mix.
“We are not even looking at what it would take to operate a self-driving truck on busier city streets,” Uber spokesperson Sarah Abboud told Recode. “The highly skilled truck drivers out there today are going to facilitate these short-haul routes now and in the future.”
Each of these drivers have commercial licenses but must receive extra training to be able to operate the autonomous truck. Today, the company needs three drivers for a single long haul.
The way it works is after a shipper posts a job on the Uber Freight marketplace, an assigned driver will pick up the freight from the shipper in a conventional truck. That driver then goes to a dedicated location, called a transfer hub, that Uber has set up where the shipment is transferred to a self-driving truck.
Then a trained autonomous vehicle operator drives the long haul portion of the trip to another transfer hub close to the destination. Here, a third driver picks up the trailer in a conventional truck and delivers the shipment to the final destination.
Uber currently owns the trucks but may partner with another company to bring the trucks to market in the future. While it’s a potentially significant move for Uber, the ride-hail company will have to compete with a number of major players operating in the space like Tesla and Alphabet’s self-driving arm Waymo, as well as newer players like Embark.
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No longer satisfied to purchase pre-built electric delivery trucks, on Thursday, UPS announced plans to start building the vehicles themselves.
In a first-of-its-kind partnership, UPS teamed up with Workhorse, an Ohio-based truck maker, to design 50 plug-in electric delivery trucks. The vehicles, to be delivered by Workhorse in 2018, will produce zero tailpipe emissions and have a per-charge range of 160 kilometers (100 miles).
“This innovation is the result of Workhorse working closely with UPS over the last four years, refining our electric vehicles with hard fought lessons from millions of road miles and thousands of packages delivered,” Steve Burns, CEO of Workhorse Group, said in a UPS press release.
“We see this vehicle as being a game changer in the electric truck arena,” Carlton Rose, president of global fleet maintenance and engineering at UPS, told Reuters. “It’s also an industry first because the acquisition cost is comparable to gas and diesel.”
UPS has 35,000 gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles in their fleet, so 50 new electric trucks may seem underwhelming. However, the company is slowly but surely making the transition away from fossil fuels.
In the U.S. and Europe, UPS has already deployed 300 electric vehicles and 700 hybrid vehicles, and more are on the way. Back in September, UPS placed an order with Daimler for three medium-duty electric trucks. In December, they reserved 125 of Tesla’s highly publicized electric semis — the largest order the company had received to date.
By 2025, UPS hopes to reduce their global ground operations’ greenhouse gas emissions by 12 percent and meet 40 percent of their ground fuel needs from sources other than gasoline and diesel. Electric vehicles will play a huge part in reaching those goals.
If all goes well with the first 50 Workhorse trucks, UPS will likely add many more of the vehicles to their fleet in the future. In addition to costing about the same to procure as traditional trucks, the vehicles are expected to have a lower cost of ownership. Those savings could go a long way toward helping UPS stay competitive in the delivery space — especially if Amazon’s new shipping service takes off.
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