Vijaysai (Vijay) Patnaik, the Product Lead for Waymo’s self-driving trucks program, tells HDT Talks Trucking podcast host Jim Park that he’s confident the company will be able to safely and responsibly deploy this technology on public roads.
 - Photo: Waymo

Vijaysai (Vijay) Patnaik, the Product Lead for Waymo’s self-driving trucks program, tells HDT Talks Trucking podcast host Jim Park that he’s confident the company will be able to safely and responsibly deploy this technology on public roads.

Photo: Waymo

Two new special-report HDT Talks Trucking podcast episodes dig into the technology behind autonomous trucks. These special reports are mid-season special-interest podcasts covering a single topic from several perspectives. 

"Robotic Trucking the Waymo Way" features an interview with Vijaysai (Vijay) Patnaik, the product lead for Waymo’s self-driving trucks program. He says he’s confident the company will be able to safely and responsibly deploy this technology on public roads. In the interview, Vijay explains some of the intricacies of the autonomy that controls the trucks and how it interacts with other road users. He talks about how the autonomy handles some unique situations, and how public perceptions of the technology are changing for the better.

"One of the big challenges we face in the self-driving technology industry, is unfamiliarity with the technology itself," he told HDT Talks Trucking Host Jim Park. "Our experience with rolling out the commercial ride-hailing service in Phoenix has been that public education is essential to demystify this new technology, and we really see it as our responsibility – along with others in the industry – to advance the conversation around this technology."

The interview also covers how Waymo trains "the Waymo Driver" – what Waymo calls the autonomy that controls the truck – and how the technology interacts with other road users and even law enforcement officials. 

The second podcast episode, "Are Autonomous Truck Ready for The Road," features self-described techno-realist and Duke University Robotics and Artificial Intelligence professor Mary "Missy" Cummings outlining her concerns about the speed at which autonomous trucks appear to be approaching commercialization. 

"There's no company that's got this worked out," she insists. "Using machine learning, deep learning, to actually power intelligence that can operate in generalizable domains is just fantasy right now."

Strong words for someone whose current research interests include explainable artificial intelligence, human-autonomous system collaboration, and the ethical and social impact of technology. Cummings, who grew up in a trucking family (her father and uncle were both truck drivers), says she's 100% behind robotic trucks in the long term, but warns that significant work remains to develop safe, robust and reliable perception systems.

The podcast interview delves into the some of the shortcomings she has identified with the perception systems, as well as the potential advances driving safety when the technology is perfected, such as reducing fatigue-related crashes involving human drivers. 

Two other episodes of HDT Talks Trucking from previous seasons feature interviews on the autonomous trucking theme. From Season 2, we have an interview with autonomous driving and artificial intelligence advocate and consultant Richard Bishop. And from Season 3, Stefan Seltz-Axmacher, the creator of Starsky Robotics, describes the challenges that eventually put the company out of business. Starsky Robotics was the first AI venture to operate a truly driverless truck on a public highway, and it was also the highest profile company to fail in its bid to become a large-scale player in the robotic truck market. 

For more on the topic, the virtual Fleet Forward Experience kicks off on Monday, Nov. 9, at noon ET with "fireside chat" between Waymo's Vijaysai Patnaik and HDT's Jim Park. Patnaik will be talking about how Waymo will integrate its autonomous solution with trucking and delivery fleets.

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