Tech

Waymo expands autonomous truck testing to Texas and New Mexico

Waymo, the Google parent company Alphabet subsidiary whose autonomous vehicles have driven more than 20 million miles, is expanding its geographic footprint into Texas and New Mexico. In a tweet this morning, Waymo announced it will begin testing self-driving trucks on “promising” commercial routes in the states as it pursues new transportation solutions, primarily along Interstates 10, 20 and 45 and through metropolitan areas like El Paso, Dallas, and Houston.

Chrysler Pacifica vans retrofitted with Waymo’s technology stack will map roads ahead of driverless Peterbilt trucks as part of a project known as Husky. The move comes after the company began mapping the streets of Los Angeles to study congestion and expanded testing to highways in Florida between Orlando, Tampa, Fort Myers, and Miami, and following Waymo’s self-driving truck pilots in San Francisco Bay Area, Michigan, Arizona, Georgia, and Metro Phoenix freeways (as well as on the I-10 between Phoenix and Tucson).

There’s a strong demand for driverless semis. It’s an industry predicted to reach 6,700 units globally, totaling $54.23 billion this year, and one that stands to save the logistics and shipping industry $70 billion annually while boosting productivity by 30%. Besides cost savings, the growth is driven partly by a shortage of human drivers. In 2018, the American Trucking Associates estimated that 50,000 more truckers were needed to close the gap in the U.S., even despite the sidelining of proposed U.S. Transportation Department screenings for sleep apnea.

But Waymo has formidable rivals in TuSimple, Thor Trucks, Pronto.ai, and Aurora — the last of which attracted a $530 million investment in February at a valuation over $2 billion. There’s also Ike, a self-driving truck startup founded by former Apple, Google, and Uber Advanced Technologies Group engineers that’s raised $52 million, and venture-backed Swedish driverless car company Einride. Meanwhile, Paz Eshel and former Uber and Otto engineer Don Burnette recently secured $40 million for their startup, Kodiak Robotics. That’s not to mention Embark, which integrates its driverless systems into semis and which launched a pilot with Amazon to haul cargo, and autonomous truck solutions from incumbents like Daimler and Volvo.

Momentum and future expansion

Google first started testing autonomous cars equipped with lidar sensors, radar, cameras, and powerful onboard computers on San Francisco roads as part of a stealth project in 2009. The unit was rebranded to Waymo in 2016 and spun out as an Alphabet subsidiary led by John Krafcik, former president and CEO of Hyundai North America.

Waymo One hasn’t grown far beyond Phoenix geographically, but it’s moving incrementally forward toward a broader launch in the continental U.S. To this end, a Waymo One app for iOS launched last month in the App Store. Like the app for Android, which launched publicly in April, Waymo One for iOS hails rides from almost any Phoenix-area location 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It prompts customers to specify both pickup and drop-off points before estimating the time to arrival and the cost of the ride. As in a typical ride-hailing app, users can also enter payment information and rate the quality of rides using a five-star scale.

Shortly after announcing a partnership with Lyft to deploy 10 cars on the ride-hailing platform in Phoenix, Waymo revealed that a portion of its self-driving taxis no longer have a safety driver behind the wheel. Completely driverless rides remain available only to a “few hundred” riders in Waymo’s Early Rider program, the company says.

Waymo is poised to expand the size of its operations drastically in the coming months. It’s on track to add up to 62,000 Chrysler Pacifica minivans to its fleet, and it has signed a deal with Jaguar Land Rover to equip 20,000 of the automaker’s Jaguar I-Pace electric SUVs with its system by 2020. (A few of the I-Paces are currently undergoing testing on public roads in San Francisco.)

According to marketing firm ABI, as many as 8 million driverless cars will be added to the road in 2025, and Research and Markets anticipates that there will be some 20 million autonomous cars in operation in the U.S. by 2030. Assuming Waymo maintains its current trajectory, investment bank UBS believes the company will dominate the driverless car market in the next decade, with over 60% market share.

That might be optimistic — Yandex, Tesla, Zoox, Aptiv, May Mobility, Pronto.ai, Aurora, Nuro, and GM’s Cruise Automation are among Waymo’s self-driving car competitors, to name just a few. Daimler last summer obtained a permit from the Chinese government that allows it to test autonomous cars powered by Baidu’s Apollo platform on public roads in China. Beijing-based Pony.ai, which has raised $214 million in venture capital, in October launched a driverless taxi pilot in Irvine. And startup Optimus Ride built out a small autonomous shuttle fleet in New York City, becoming the first to do so.

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