In the race to be first to market with a viable autonomous Class 8 truck, Waymo is widely considered to be one of the segment’s tech leaders. And that stands to reason: The company, which is backed by Google via its Alphabet autonomous technology division, has already made serious strides in multiple emerging transportation systems.
The company is planning to launch a fleet of autonomous minivans in what can best be described as a robot taxi service. It is also focused on both autonomous control systems for passenger cars as well as ride-hailing services that some experts predict could make car ownership as old-fashioned as taking a horse and buggy to town.
But Waymo CEO John Krafcik made it clear the company remains committed to bringing self-driving commercial vehicles to the trucking industry as well when speaking at the Frankfurt Motor Show on September 29. He noted that trucking is a market with massive profit potential for autonomous technology developers due to the ongoing shortage of truck drivers – a dearth that is forecast to grow worse in coming years as the demand to move freight generated by ecommerce grows over the next decade and beyond.
Krafcik told his audience that Waymo’s self-driving technology for passenger vehicles, called "Waymo Driver," can also be adapted for hauling freight while improving the safety and efficiency of truck fleets while dramatically increasing vehicle utilization since, in his vision of an autonomous future, trucks will be able to operate 24 hours a day, stopping only for fuel and maintenance.
"Ride-hailing is an important application of our Driver," Krafcik told political and industry leaders in Frankfurt, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, at auto show’s opening ceremonies. "Our technology can also make trucking safer and stronger, and fill a pressing need for more drivers in many parts of the world.”
After a series of fitful stops and starts, Waymo resumed testing its autonomous trucks in Arizona last May. So Krafcik’s remarks aren’t news, per se, to people who follow the trucking industry.
But what is interesting is his public return to the concept of a continuous, 24-hour duty cycle for commercial vehicles – an idea that, in reality, is the Holy Grail of autonomous technology developers in the truck space.
A decade ago, when the reality of autonomous technology first broke onto an unsuspecting trucking industry, the idea of one day having robot trucks capable of driving without any concern for a human being’s available hours, need for rest, food or bathroom breaks was often discussed as the ultimate payoff for fleets willing to one day invest in the new-fangled technology.
As work progressed, and developers found both substantial pushback from society at large about the fate of truck drivers put out of work by robots, and the practical challenges of deploying autonomous trucks safely around human drivers became clearer, such talk faded away. It was replaced by an emphasis on the safety aspects of autonomous technology, and the idea that as these systems slowly came on line, they would make human drivers safer, more productive and happier.
So it’s interesting to hear Krafcik now return to the idea of 24-hour trucks now. One can’t help but wonder if this is a sign of an imminent technological breakthrough, or simply the optimistic proselytizing of a tech guru impatient for an industry in need of both drivers and efficiency to understand the promise he believes his technology holds for it.
Time will tell, I suppose. But it’s worth noting that Krafcik’s comments are a sign that the minds spearheading the development of autonomous technology haven’t forgotten the tremendous improvements they believe they will be able to deliver to fleets in a few years. There may very well be an “interim” period where humans and robots share control of trucks together. But the long-term goal for tech developers like Krafick remains unchanged: A world where unmanned trucks run all day and all night, bringing undreamed of levels of efficiency and utilization to fleet operations around the globe.