Waymo announced plans to build a central hub for autonomous trucks in Dallas two months ago, and now Boris Sofman, senior director of engineering at Waymo Via, shared more details about the robo-truck division Waymo Via’s plans in a podcast with Lex Fridman.
The first central warehouse geared for autonomous trucks is being built on a three-and-a-half-acre site in south Dallas to serve hundreds of trucks and employees. The hub is expected to be ready for occupancy and begin operations in spring 2022. The hub’s manageable fleet of hundreds of Waymo Via robo-trucks will then be jointly operated with fleet management partner Ryder. While Waymo will be responsible for operating the fleet of trucks, Ryder will provide fleet maintenance and service.
According to Boris Sofmann, the first step will be for a driver to take over or hand over the vehicle at the highway hubs before the on- and off-ramps and steer it between the highway and the warehouse. On the long highway stretches themselves, the vehicle will drive autonomously, without a driver on board. This means that the current restrictions on driving time per day, which in the U.S. is 14 hours for drivers before legally required eight-hour breaks must be taken, can be lifted, allowing vehicles to operate longer. Additionally, this will eliminate the unattractive long hauls for drivers, where they spend 300 days a year on the road, away from family. The industry itself is characterized by overweight, stress, and an aging of drivers,. Fewer and fewer young people are choosing to become truck drivers, and the average age of drivers is now 50.
Waymo already has 47 trucks (so-called Class 8 trucks) in operation, and the current transport routes between Texas and Arizona will then be successively expanded and extended. Waymo, Google’s self-driving division, has so far raised $5.75 billion (5.1 billion euros) in venture capital itself after years of funding from parent Alphabet, attracting partners such as Enterprise and Magna. In addition to funding, however, Waymo Via has also entered into development partnerships with truck manufacturers such as Daimler Trucks and Stellantis, or trucking companies such as J.B. Hunt and UPS.
The crisis in the American trucking industry has only worsened with COVID and the sharp increase in demand for truck drivers. Currently, the U.S. has a shortage of 80,000 truck drivers, and those numbers are expected to soon exceed 100,000. Commercial trucking in the U.S. today is an $800 billion (€707 billion) industry alone. Robo-trucks could be a solution to the driver shortage in this regard, but they could also offer opportunities to turn the logistics industry on its head. The majority of today’s trucking companies operate between one and five trucks, and the logistics industry is poorly digitized and highly inefficient.
This article was also published in German.