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Waymo's Autonomous Trucks Enter New Testing Phase in Phoenix

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【Summary】Waymo’s trials will go beyond testing basic trucking features. According to the startup, the program focuses on challenges with maneuvering a fully-loaded truck and trailer.

Michael Cheng    Jun 08, 2019 5:00 AM PT
Waymo's Autonomous Trucks Enter New Testing Phase in Phoenix

Waymo is pushing forward with expanding its fleet of driverless trucks. The auto company recently announced it will deploy the vehicles along highways in Phoenix, Arizona. It is important to point out that this isn't the first time the company's trucks will be tested in the state.

"When we tested in Arizona before back in 2017, it was early days and we were just looking to gather some initial information about driving our trucks in the region," said a Waymo spokesperson in an emailed statement.

"Now we're back to continue that learning at a more advanced stage in our development."

Other businesses that have deployed autonomous trucks in Arizona includes TuSimple and Uber. TuSimple, a driverless truck startup that has partnered with the US Postal Service, conducts self-driving trips between Tucson and Phoenix via Interstate 10.

Routes and Testing Principles

Waymo's trials will go beyond testing basic trucking features. According to the startup, the program focuses on challenges with maneuvering a fully-loaded truck and trailer. Such activities, which includes braking, turning and addressing blind spots, are more difficult to take on for large vehicles. Because of this, the business intends to test both empty and loaded trucks.

The startup confirmed its autonomous units will initially be deployed around freeways in Phoenix. Over time, the routes are expected to expand to other locations within the area.

Interestingly, the startup has been quietly accruing mileage with its self-driving fleet at other sites in the country, such as Georgia and California. The company's website indicates it has tested autonomous trucks carrying payloads, which delivered goods to Google's warehouses. During trials, Waymo allocates two human drivers per vehicle.

In other parts of Arizona, Waymo is conducting trials using driverless vans for private and commercial transport, as well as for taxi services. The same set of external sensors applied to the autonomous vans (long-range LIDAR, radar, cameras, etc.) will also be utilized by its Class 8 self-driving trucks.

New Skillsets Required

Autonomous trucks are being developed to make long-haul deliveries safer and less costly. From a job demand perspective, the rise of the modern commercial vehicles will support numerous new positions that require both traditional and updated skillsets. At the early stages of deployment on public roads, self-driving fleets will be heavily monitored by human operators in remote locations. Such individuals will keep a close eye on autonomous trucks within the fleet, intervene during complex scenarios or emergencies and relay information to support real-time decision making.

"Self-driving trucks will still need operators to perform tasks like repairing flat tires and managing emergencies, possibly changing the skillset and wages of truckers without significantly affecting the number of trucking jobs," said the US Government Accountability Office in a recently released report.

For Waymo, expanding its autonomous trucking services will require a massive workforce. There are several non-autonomous driving aspects of commercial transport services that must factored in for streamlined daily operations, such as fleet maintenance, on-loading and off-loading goods in warehouses or ports (for commercial delivery trucks) and scheduling.

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