From The Editors Technology

Uber’s Autonomous Big Rigs are Hauling Cargo across Arizona

Uber announced Tuesday that it has been using its long-haul self-driving trucks since November last year to make actual delivery runs across Arizona for its ‘Uber Freight’ customers.

‘Uber Freight’ is basically a free app launched last year with the purpose of connecting shippers with carriers.

‘Uber Freight’ app that matches carriers with shippers (photo: Uber Freight)
‘Uber Freight’ app that matches carriers with shippers (photo: Uber Freight)

Following the completion of the testing phase, Uber contracted conventional trucking companies as part of its plan to complete the three-stage freight delivery sequence.

Here’s how it works:

A conventional, human-driven truck picks up the merchandise from the shipper’s address and makes a short-haul trip to a transfer hub, the Topock weigh station on the California-Arizona border being one of them.

The cargo trailer is then linked-up with one of Uber’s fleet of self-driving trucks for the long haul journey across the state to another transfer hub. Here again, a conventional truck takes over from the autonomous rig for the final short-haul to the intended destination.

While an Uber safety-driver is on board the autonomous truck all through the long haul, his job does not entail driving the vehicle; he is there, primarily, to keep an eye on the monitors and ensure things are going according to plan. However, certain situations, like accidents or construction zones, may require the onboard driver’s intervention.

Other than Uber’s Advanced Technology Group’s disclosure that its autonomous fleet has run a combined two million miles, the company has not been very forthcoming in so far as the strength of the fleet, the number of autonomous hauls it has made, or the type of cargo it has been hauling are concerned.

Uber is working towards reaching its eventual goal of making the entire three-stage delivery process seamless and continuous, according to Alden Woodrow, Uber’s product lead for self-driving trucks.

“We’re not at the point where that system is running 24-7 at all times,” Woodrow said. “But that’s the direction that we’d like to get to.”

Woodrow also said that the company has been concentrating all its efforts, for a while now, in fine-tuning the technology involved.

“We’re building something that solves problems in the industry … and also makes truck drivers’ lives easier and better,” he said.

Woodrow said that keeping the human-driven hauls short and localized will allow drivers to make money, without having to drive long distances away from home.

“The big step for us recently is that we can plan to haul goods in both directions, using Uber Freight to coordinate load pickups and dropoffs with local truckers,” said Woodrow. “Keeping trucking local allows these drivers to make money while staying closer to home.”

It must be mentioned that Uber is not single in its pursuit of perfecting the autonomous truck technology, what with start-ups like Embark and Convoy also vying for a piece of the $700 billion pie accounting for 70% percent of nation’s domestic cargo; not to mention Tesla, also looking to make forays into the lucrative freight business with its all-new Tesla Semi unveiled in November last year by company CEO Elon Musk.

Silicon Valley, California-based Embark, which has been hauling refrigerators between its home state and Texas since the latter part of 2017, successfully achieved a 2400-mile coast-to-coast autonomous trip from Los Angeles to Jacksonville, Florida, as recently as last month. The trip lasted for five hours, which included rest stops for the accompanying driver.

Seattle-based Convoy, on the other hand, has managed to raise $62 million for an Uber Freight-like app that connects shippers with trucking companies.

Woodrow, however, does not envision Uber managing an autonomous fleet all on its own, which, basically, means that the company may be thinking in terms of selling its technology to established players in the trucking business.

“Today we’re operating our own trucks, but in the future it remains to be seen what happens,” he said. “Trucking is a very large and sophisticated business with a lot of companies in the value chain who are good at what they do. So our desire is to partner.”

Now that Uber’s self-driving fleet seems to be on the right path in Arizona, the company will be looking forward to extending its reach to other states, as well, by building more Topock-like transfer hubs across the country, linking the local-haul drivers to the autonomous long-haul routes.

The reason why Uber can’t undertake the entire end-to-end haul autonomously is that the technology isn’t capable of handling the complex and crowded streets in an urban scenario – yet. Hence, the need for local haul drivers.

“Because we are still in research and development mode, the capabilities are changing all the time,” Woodrow said. “In general, the trucks are pretty capable of driving on the highway, and that’s what we’re designing them for.”

In the past, Uber has had a few brushes with the authorities in so far as its autonomous vehicle program is concerned – like, for instance, when it tested its self-driving cars on the streets of San Francisco without a permit, and when it attracted a lawsuit from Google for allegedly stealing the tech giant’s self-driving car technology.

However, after Uber’s new CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi replaced former CEO and co-founder Travis Kalanick, the company has adopted a by-the-book policy.

“Arizona has become a hub for testing of self-driving vehicles,” said Arizona Governor Doug Ducey. “And we welcome continued innovation and testing of new technologies.”

Here’s the long and the short of the Uber hauls:

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