Most of the tech companies that are working towards making autonomous vehicle travel the norm also seek to solve problems in the trucking industry. Alphabet’s Waymo has entered into the self-driving truck race, and they’ve made plans to begin testing autonomous semi-trucks. The new pilot project will be based in Atlanta since it’s one of the largest logistics hubs in the U.S.
Waymo’s plan involves having an unspecified number of trucks carry cargo to Google’s data centers. One major objective of the project is to focus on expanding the company’s imprint in logistics alongside training the self-driving systems. According to Waymo company officials, “Atlanta is one of the biggest logistics hubs in the country, making it a natural home for Google’s logistical operations and the perfect environment for our next phase of testing Waymo’s self-driving trucks… 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 centers, ports, and terminals.”
Modifications will need to be made as the project runs its course, as the underlying technology for the trucks is the same as what was used in the highly tested fleet of Waymo’s self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans. Waymo had already been testing their trucks in California and Arizona, but that was only a preliminary step before making the big jump to Atlanta. The company has been wanting to explore the trucking industry more, made evident when its CEO, John Krafcik, described the opportunity as low-hanging fruit in the wake of autonomous driving technology.
One of the biggest reasons so many automotive tech companies are coming to the trucking industry is because of the potential economic benefit. The American Trucking Association stated that the industry made $676.2 billion in 2016, which equates to 79.8 percent of the nation’s freight bill. Self-driving systems could only hope to increase that revenue. As it is, there are about 3.5 million Americans employed as truck drivers, which still leaves for a shortage of about 50,000 drivers at the moment. Automated trucks could correct for the shortage and the high turnover rate in the industry. While a lot could change to better the status quo of trucking in general, concerns have risen for job security in the drivers.
There’s concern that over the long-term use of the automated systems many jobs could be displaced as people are replaced by machines. CEO and co-founder of Starsky Robotics, Stefan Seltz-Axmacher, views the technology as something that would help humans in their jobs rather than erase them from the equation.
While autonomous systems handle the longer stretches of simple interstate driving, humans can worry more about focusing on more complex urban routes as well as guiding trucks from remote operations centers. This can give drivers, who spend several hours to days on the road, back their time in which they could spend in their personal lives. And while no one really seems to have asked drivers who enjoy the job how they feel about this sort of change, there are still a lot of benefits to be had. If all goes well in this “move to trucking” plan, trucking could be the first area where self-driving technology really makes a difference.