Waymo’s Path To Robot Truck Business Means Mastering Wind, Flares And Pedestrians On The Highway

Waymo Alphabet Inc.’s autonomous driving firm isn’t clear on the time when semis that are controlled with its tech will start transporting cargo without drivers across the U.S. but has complex challenges to be overcome first, which include rough winds and slippery roads, to pedestrians wandering off the highway, and working out how robots can use safety flares when they need to stop.

The robotaxis from the company has been hauling paying passengers in suburban Phoenix over the last few years and recently received permission from the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles to charge passengers on demand for rides in electric Jaguar crossovers in San Francisco and San Mateo County. However, commercial trucking via the company’s Waymo Via unit is probably some time away because of the team’s top leaders’ complicated regulations and technical difficulties.

“At a national scale, there are some specific rules that have been created for the human-driven truck currently. For instance, using emergency road flares even if you’re pulled over on an overpass,” says Charlie Jatt, who is the company’s head of commercialization for trucking. He’s kept quiet about how this will be solved but noted that it won’t happen by a “robot cannon firing flares.”

Waymo remains the definitive leading company in the race to create autonomous vehicles, with the most advanced program dating from 2009 and at minimum $5.75 billion in investment from last year. However, while the competition focuses on specific applications such as autonomous trucks, city delivery, mechanical axis, and personal vehicles, Waymo is determined to participate in every market. Trucking is appealing because the U.S. industry generates about $800 billion in annual revenue and, most importantly, is a driver shortage that is especially acute for long-haul services across several states, as per the American Trucking Association.
Waymo is competing with businesses like TuSimple, Aurora, Embark, and Kodiak in trucking and has increased its efforts in this area by joining forces with Daimler Trucks to develop vehicles specifically designed for autonomous vehicle use, with an upgraded electrical system and redundant brakes and parts. The test fleet has increased from a few trucks last year to more than 50 vehicles equipped with lidar laser sensors that detect objects in all light conditions, including radar, cameras, and computers.

“We likely consider what the world may be able to throw at us with a level of detail that’s close to paranoia.”

“We have a significant number (of trucks) that will be available during this quarter and to the end of this year,” stated Boris Sofman, the senior director of engineering and director of perception and trucking. “Then we’ll expand this aggressively next year, particularly when we get additional Daimler Trucks through our partnership.”In August, Waymo announced plans to build an advanced facility near Dallas that will function as a research lab to develop the kinds of trucking hubs in the future which form in its long-term plans. The company believes the quickest method to bring robotic trucks operationally is to restrict their driving to main highways and pull them off only to transport cargo to transfer hubs near roads and avoid the busy urban streets.

“It’ll likely be years of effort to resolve the general issue of driving across all terrains across the globe,” Sofman said. That’s the reason Waymo is focusing on creating transfer hubs specifically for autonomous vehicles. “From the business standpoint, it makes sense to think about what is the least amount of resistance that will open markets and creates the greatest value.”
TuSimple intends to start operating its autonomous trucks in 2024. Aurora is hoping to commercialize its technology in 2023. Waymo probably has the same timeline but hasn’t set a specific date. Contrary to TuSimple who is planning to operate its network of truckers, Waymo is developing its technology for trucking firms and truck manufacturers and will be charging the cost of subscriptions for clients of their “driver in a cloud,” Jatt says. Jatt.Although highways are typically easier to drive on than city roads, full-loaded semis weighing 80,000 pounds have a lot to contend with due to the slippery roads, fog, and strong winds. “Wind generally alters the motion control on the truck. Even experienced drivers, based on the type of load they’re carrying and the configuration they use, must manage wind in a variety of manners,” says trucking product manager Shai Ben-Nun. In addition, while developing software that can handle challenging weather conditions can be tricky, but it must also be prepared for other difficulties.

“One of the instances I’m able to provide is a person walking along the highway at night entirely covered in black and moving in our direction. We witness that often,” Ben Nun said. “There’s no way that a (human) trucker would discern that quickly enough; however, we do, and we can see it much earlier than human drivers.”

It’s the kind of unlikely scenario Waymo is planning for. “We are likely to contemplate what the world could bring you with an intensity that’s close to the paranoid,” Sofman says.

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Adam Collins
Adam writes about technology, business and economics. With master's degree in Economics, he's presented six papers in international conferences. As a solivagant in the constant state of fernweh, curiosity is the main weapon in his arsenal.

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