Uber trucks start shuttling goods across Arizona — by themselves

Marco della Cava
Otto self-driving truck.
Source: Otto

Uber announced Tuesday that it has been sending self-driving trucks on delivery runs across Arizona since November, the first step in what could be a freight transportation revolution that could leave long-haul truckers in the cold.

After testing its technology earlier in 2017, Uber began contracting with trucking companies to use its own autonomous Volvo big rigs to take over loads as they traverse the state. Uber did not disclose what items it is transporting for which companies.

"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," sas Alden Woodrow, who leads Uber's self driving truck effort. "Keeping trucking local allows these drivers to make money while staying closer to home."

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Uber Freight, which launched last May, is an app that matches shippers with loads using technology drawn from Uber's ride-hailing app. Typically such trucking logistics have been coordinated through phone calls and emails.

Uber isn't alone is its pursuit of self-driving truck technology, with startups such as Embark joining companies such as Tesla and its new Tesla Semi to carve out a slice of a $700 billion industry that move 70% of all domestic freight, according to the American Trucking Association.

Despite the push, self-driving trucks autonomous technology remains in its infancy, with hurdles that include government regulations and trucker buy-in.

While truck owner-operators make money only when their rigs are on the road, it remains to be seen if they will be comfortable sleeping while their trucks drive, and if they'll fork over what promises to be a considerable investment to make their cabs autonomous.

Woodrow says Uber's trucking plans remain in development, but he does not see the company running a fleet of self-driving trucks — which would imply that its technology would be available for purchase from large established shipping companies.

"Today we're operating our own trucks, but in the future it remains to be seen what happens," he says. "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."

Uber's trucks stick to the highway

It is important to note that Uber's current Arizona pilot program does not feature trucks making end-to-end runs from pick-up to delivery.

Instead, Uber's Volvo trucks — which have Uber truck drivers monitoring matters from the driver's seat — focus solely on autonomous highway driving.

The way Uber's trucking program works is that trucks driven by humans arrive at hubs set up at weigh stations near the Arizona border, where their trailers loads are switched over to Uber's Volvos.

These trucks are equipped with hardware, software and an array of sensors developed by Uber's Advanced Technologies Group that help the truck make what amounts to a glorified cruise-control run across the state. Uber ATG also is behind ongoing self-driving car testing in Arizona, Pennsylvania and San Francisco.

Once the Uber trucks exit at the next highway hub near the Arizona border, they are met by truckers who hitch the trailer to own their cab to finish the delivery.

The idea is truckers get to go home to their families instead of being on the road. In a video Uber created to tout the program, the company showcases a California trucker who, once at the Arizona border, hands his trailer over to an Uber self-driving truck for its trip east, while picking up a different load that needs to head back to California.

Autonomous vehicles are being pursued by dozens of companies ranging from large automakers to technology startups. Slowly, states are adapting their rules to try and be on the front lines of a potential transportation shift.

Michigan, California and Arizona for example have been constantly updating their autonomous car testing laws in order to court companies working on such tech. California recently joined Arizona in announcing that it would allow self-driving cars to be tested without a driver at the wheel.

Skeptics of the self-driving gold rush include the Consumer Watchdog Group's John Simpson, who in a recent letter to lawmakers said "any autonomous vehicle legislation should require a human driver behind a steering wheel capable of taking control."

Uber refocuses after lawsuit

Uber's announcement aims to cast a positive light on the company's trucking efforts, and comes a few weeks after it settled a contentious year-old lawsuit brought by Waymo, the name of Google's self-driving car program.

Waymo's suit argued that Uber was building light detection and ranging sensors — roof-top lasers that help vehicles interpret their surroundings — based on trade secrets stolen by Anthony Levandowski, who left Waymo to start a self-driving truck company called Otto. Montly after its creation in early 2016, Uber bought Otto for around $680 million.

Since then, Travis Kalanick, the Uber CEO who negotiated the deal with Levandowski, was ousted from the company he co-founded after a rash of bad publicity surrounding charges that Uber ran a sexist operation that often skirted the law. Levandowski was fired by Uber after he repeatedly declined to answer questions from Waymo's lawyers.

In settling the suit, Uber had to give Waymo $245 million in equity but it did not admit guilt. Uber has long maintained that its LiDAR was built with its own engineering know-how.

"Our trucks do not run on the same self-driving (technology) as Otto trucks did," says Woodrow. "It's Uber tech, and we're improving on it all the time."