J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. (NASDAQ: JBHT) will test high-autonomy software from Waymo Via on a leading customer route from Houston to Fort Worth, Texas, where robot truck evaluations are making up a greater portion of Lone Star State traffic.
Motorists near the trucks on Interstate 45 might notice an array of sensors, cameras and spinning light-detecting radars affixed to the semi tractors. Or they could be oblivious because both driver and passenger seats are occupied by humans — for now.
Waymo Via, the autonomous trucking descendant of the Google self-driving car program that has recorded 20 million miles of real-world driving in 10 states, has been working with Hunt on operational and market studies. They cover best practices for regular maintenance, future facility layouts and which lanes are best suited for autonomous driving technology.
Hunt was conspicuous by its absence from a group of fleets, including Werner Enterprises (NASDAQ: WERN) and U.S. Xpress (NYSE: USX), that invested in TuSimple Holdings (NASDAQ: TSP), the first autonomous trucking software developer to go public in an initial public offering in April.
Waymo, which is working with market leader Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA) to develop a Class 8 Freightliner Cascadia with its fifth-generation WaymoDriver software, had not previously disclosed any fleet relationships.
Bigger in Texas
“This will be one of the first opportunities for J.B. Hunt to receive data and feedback on customer freight moved with a Class 8 tractor operating at this level of autonomy,” Craig Harper, J.B. Hunt chief sustainability officer and executive vice president, said in a press release Thursday.
TuSimple, Aurora Innovation, Embark Trucks, Kodiak Robotics and now Waymo Via all use Texas as a middle-mile proving ground. Most autonomous truck testing occurs in Southwestern states because weather is more predictable with long highway stretches ideally suited to eventual driverless operations.
TuSimple has said it will test a “driver out” pilot in Arizona in the fourth quarter.
Efficiency and safety
Currently, all of the autonomous software developers have safety drivers in the driver’s seat ready to take over operation if needed. A software technician with a laptop computer monitors system performance from the passenger seat.
“While we believe there will be a need for highly skilled, professional drivers for many years to come, it is important for J.B. Hunt as an industry leader to be involved early in the development of advanced autonomous technologies and driving systems to ensure that their implementation will improve efficiency while enhancing safety,” Harper said.
Robot functions eventually will substitute for an unknown number of long-haul drivers, with an aging population worsening a shortage in a part of the profession that struggles to recruit and retain drivers.
“Our teams share an innovative and safety-first mindset as well as a deep appreciation for the potential benefits of autonomous driving technology in trucking,” said Charlie Jatt, Waymo head of trucking commercialization. “It’s companies and relationships like these that will make this technology a commercial reality in the coming years.”