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The Future of Commercial Freight: Self-Driving Trucks

Testing of Self-Driving Trucks Underway

Waymo, which is a subsidiary of Alphabet, Inc. has been in the business of developing autonomous vehicles for the past 10 years. Since 2017, Waymo has been working on self-driving trucks and the company has plans to launch Waymo Via, a commercial freight delivery service.

In a recent blog post, Waymo disclosed new details about the advancements it has made in driverless truck technology.  These trucks are intended to transform the shipping industry and make freight delivery much more efficient, not to mention safer.  Waymo’s autonomous Class 8 trucks have thus far been tested on public roads in Georgia, California, New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas. 

The Technology of Self-Driving Trucks

Waymo’s autonomous trucks use the same technology suite as the company’s self-driving passenger vehicles.  That technology is called the “Waymo Driver,” and it is the foundation for all of the autonomous vehicle development being done by the company. 

Human truck drivers face many challenges while operating a 75,000+ pound semi-truck at freeway speeds.  Those challenges include visibility blind spots, merging into fast-moving traffic, constant mirror checks, and maintenance of lane position.  Navigating such a large truck is no simple task, and accident statistics reflect that – over a third of long-haul truck drivers have been involved in a significant crash at some point during their careers, according to research conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Waymo asserts that its self-driving technology has brought a degree of safety to the trucking industry that is impossible to reach by human drivers. The company asserts it is not replacing drivers with computers, but instead is tapping into the knowledge of seasoned professional truck drivers and incorporating that wisdom into its software suite.  Waymo has partnered with test drivers who have more than 20 years in the trucking industry to learn from their expertise.  One of the test drivers explains that he feels he is having an impact by working with Waymo’s engineering team.  He has learned hard lessons on the road, and sharing them can benefit society by making the roads safer.

The Waymo autonomous trucks are fitted with the hardware that is relied upon by most self-driving vehicles – lidar, radar, and camera systems.  The company is working with truck manufacturers directly to have the Waymo Driver system integrated into the trucks during production, which is a more seamless process than installing the hardware on existing vehicles. 

Adaptations for Large Trucks

Class-8 trucks by design are intended to operate on freeways.  The weight and mass of the vehicles mean they take longer to stop – up to the length of two football fields. The large trucks also take longer to accelerate than passenger cars.  To account for these factors, Waymo increased the number of sensors onboard.  Instead of the one perception dome that is found on the company’s autonomous passenger vehicles, the trucks incorporate two perception systems.  The dual nature of the system increases rear visibility and reduces blind spots.  

Some of the other advancements Waymo is working on:

  • Machine learning – this is a phrase used to describe the ability of the systems to predict the behavior of other vehicle operators on the road.  Waymo is fine-tuning its algorithms to better support the operation of heavy and large trucks traveling at highway speeds. Their new machine learning model is called “VectorNet” and it is designed to more accurately predict driver behavior.  
  • Waymo Driver for trucks also includes a longer-range perception system, which is able to identify objects that are a greater distance ahead, allowing for an earlier response from the system and the ability to maneuver more smoothly if necessary.
  • Additional upgrades to the Waymo Driver so it can navigate traffic metering lights while merging onto a freeway, and travel safely through highway construction zones that may direct traffic to oncoming lanes.

Watch the YouTube video from Jalopnik, exploring Waymo’s self-driving trucks.

Looking Toward the Future

It is the hope that self-driving truck technology will soon make the transporting of goods safer, more efficient, and less expensive.  Waymo has over a decade of experience in developing autonomous vehicles, and the technological progress made through the company’s development with regard to trucking will carry over into passenger vehicles.  

Other companies working on autonomous trucks are Einride (Sweden) and TuSimple (California).

Fairfield Truck Accident Lawyer

Thanks for reading – I’m Ed Smith, a truck accident lawyer in Fairfield, California.  If you suffered injuries in a trucking collision, give my office a call at (707) 564-1900 or, if you will be calling from outside the 707 area code, at (800) 404-5400.  I will be happy to offer free and friendly advice with regard to your potential legal claim.

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