Editor’s Note: CORRECTS lead to fourth instead of fifth generation technology and clarifies throughout
Waymo Via took to the freeways outside Phoenix on Wednesday to demonstrate its fourth generation of Level 4 autonomous Class 8 trucking.
The system is still “years away” from production. And while the drive was real, invited media experienced it virtually.
Lessons from Waymo Via’s Peterbilt-based heavy-duty trucks traveling Interstate 10 and Arizona 202 freeways are shared with Waymo’s more mature autonomous ride-hailing service. Waymo operates Chrysler Pacifica minivans without drivers in Chandler, Arizona.
Shared with passenger car automation
The latest trucking software is based on the Waymo Driver system that debuted on the Jaguar I-Pace in 2020. For example, spinning light detection and ranging units on the mirrors are essentially the same as on the passenger car.
“That same kind of sensor will work in both of these cases,” said Brad Neuman, who leads the motion planning software engineering team at Waymo Via. “So, that really helps hit those economies of scale.”
Waymo previously announced it is partnering with the Transportation Research Center Inc. (TRC) in East Liberty, Ohio, to co-develop a custom testing environment for the fifth-generation hardware and software system that it will supply to Daimler Trucks.
20 million miles — and counting
Waymo has amassed 20 million miles of autonomous driving, dating to when it was known as Google’s autonomous car project. Waymo is a subsidiary of Google’s parent, Alphabet Inc. (NASDAQ: GOOGL). It does not break down the miles traveled between cars and trucks. But cars have a huge lead.
New additions to the Waymo Via truck demonstrated Wednesday include higher-resolution lidar, which works like radar but uses light from a laser, and 360-degree camera sensors that can see objects more than 1,640 feet from the truck.
“Best of all, this version of the Waymo Driver is built for scale,“ Neuman said. “All these improvements in range and reliability also come with a lower cost and are better set to scale up for production.”
But mass production of Waymo Via is years away, Neuman said.
“We want to scale as we’re ready,” he said. “We don’t care about just pushing out big numbers of trucks just to have high numbers.”
More autonomous trucks will be on the roads over the next several years. But Waymo Via Product Manager Pablo Abad would not be pinned down further.
“Autonomous trucking is not going to be like a light switch that suddenly flips and all of a sudden we now have autonomous trucks on the road where we didn’t the day before,” he said. “It’s going to be a rollout kind of like we’re doing with ride hailing. Right now, we’re starting in the Southwestern states, which have very favorable weather for autonomous trucks.”
Relative latecomer to trucking
Waymo Via entered the Class 8 trucking space in 2017, a comparative latecomer after focusing on passenger cars, where it is an acknowledged leader in self-driving.
So far, Waymo Via keeps a driver in control on surface streets, piloting trucks onto a highway on-ramp before activating the autonomous system.
“We’re continuously testing on closed courses on a daily basis,” Abad said. “We are testing in all manner of situations. We’re just not driving autonomously on surface streets.”
The competitive picture
Some of Waymo’s competitors appear to be moving faster.
TuSimple, which filed Tuesday to become a public company, has 50 trucks hauling freight in its Level 4 autonomous trucks in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. It is mapping all 48 contiguous states and expects to sell its software integrated in International daycabs from Navistar in 2024.
Plus is fielding its autonomous software on Class 8 trucks in the U.S. and China, amassing miles that will let it move into Level 4 operation. Though its software would allow operation without human interference in most cases, Plus drivers operate with advanced driver assistance systems, sometimes known as Level 2 automation.
Daimler Trucks is working with Waymo on the fifth-generation software package for its Cascadia flagship. And it has a second-generation Level 4 truck under internal development with Torc Robotics, which Daimler purchased in March 2019.