Executive Interview: Waymo’s Head of Commercialization for Trucking Talks Autonomous Driving 

July 20, 2021

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As the head of commercialization for trucking at Waymo, Charlie Jatt oversees the autonomous driving technology company’s mission to create a safe and easy way for people and things to get where they’re going.

Jatt, who holds a B.S. in engineering physics from Stanford University, leads the commercialization efforts for Waymo Via, defining and executing strategy, managing business development and partnership efforts with fleets, and guaranteeing operational success for commercial deployments. In an effort to gain some insight into the upcoming ACT Expo breakout session, Autonomous Advantage: The State and Future of Autonomy for Fleets, ACT News reached out to Jatt to get his take on current and upcoming developments in the autonomous world.

ACT News: Why did Google transform its autonomous project to the company now known as Waymo? What does Waymo stand for/mean?

Charlie Jatt: Waymo stands for a new way forward in mobility. We started as the Google self-driving car project in 2009 and spun out of Google to become Waymo, an independent subsidiary of Alphabet, in 2016 to fully focus on building and commercializing the Waymo Driver – the world’s most experienced autonomous driving technology.

“Waymo stands for a new way forward in mobility.”

ACT News: How has the last decade influenced how you are developing your current commercial trucking program, Waymo Via?

Charlie Jatt: Since the early days of the project in 2009, the vision has always been to create one technology platform that could automate driving for many different types of vehicles and use cases,and we have been very intentional with our approach to each opportunity. We started by focusing our development on passenger cars for a ride-hailing use case, but once we saw sufficient progress on the core technology, we felt confident to accelerate our Class 8 trucking solution in parallel.

We started dedicated development of our trucking solution in 2017, and since then we’ve been extremely encouraged in how well our core technology platform transfers to the trucking application specifically. Further, we’ve been able to really optimize how we develop both a passenger car and trucking application in parallel in a way that both applications benefit from advancements in each – tech advancements in one application directly improves the other application. It’s a really nice flywheel effect, all built upon one platform, the Waymo Driver.

The other major benefit of our decade plus of experience is that we’re following a roadmap that we know works. Waymo is the only company in the world to launch a public service using fully autonomous driving technology, with no driver behind the wheel. So we know how to reach the finish line, and we’re following and improving that same playbook in order to bring a fully autonomous, no driver behind the wheel, Class 8 trucking solution.

ACT News: How can autonomous technology improve the commercial trucking industry?

Charlie Jatt: Trucking is a vital part of the global economy, and we believe autonomous driving technology can help make it even stronger by enhancing safety, addressing the driver shortage, and adding efficiency within the industry. The trucking industry has an incredibly strong safety culture and decades of experience seeking safety improvements, and we believe we can help build on that in partnership with industry. The Waymo Driver promises immense safety benefits for trucking – both for the fleets of trucks themselves and for all of us that share the roads with trucks.

“Trucking is a vital part of the global economy, and we believe autonomous driving technology can help make it even stronger.”

The last year has also really put a spotlight on the driver shortage, and that’s something that our technology can help with immensely. We’re focused on automating long-haul highway driving, which is the hardest type of trucking job to recruit for these days because drivers have to spend days or weeks away from their home and families. We expect to see a hybrid future where autonomous technology helps alleviate the driver shortage on long-haul routes while the human driving jobs shift towards more local intra-city operations.

Finally, we think our autonomous driving technology will ultimately provide fleets with incredible efficiencies across the supply chain through things like cost savings, improved asset utilization, faster delivery times, and better real-time visibility of freight movement, just to name a few. We believe we can’t even imagine all the efficiency benefits will be realized once autonomous technology enables a new paradigm.

ACT News: What Class 8 tractor projects are currently underway and what have you learned so far?

Charlie Jatt: Today, our Waymo Via test fleet is operating both day and night across Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico,  on  I-10, I-20, and I-45, as well as freeways in Silicon Valley like the 280 and 101. Our on-road testing continually refines both our core driving capabilities, like freeway driving or managing variable loads, as well as advancing our capabilities in some of the most challenging situations, such as dense traffic conditions or construction zones, for example.

We’re continually adding new trucks to our test fleet across these geographies and have partnered with Daimler Trucks to build an L4 ready fully autonomous truck for the Waymo Driver that will be available to fleet customers in the coming years. This collaboration is critical to enable the deployment of fully autonomous trucking technology.

We’re also working with major carriers, like J.B. Hunt, through both trial runs where we carry freight, as well as deep dive studies to understand how autonomous driving technology can best be integrated into fleets’ operations to improve their future business

ACT News: How does Waymo intend to support the development of autonomous vehicle technology along commercial freight’s long journey from the Class 8 tractors to last-mile delivery vehicles?

Charlie Jatt: Waymo Via trucking will first tackle line- and long-haul routes on freeways, and ultimately, we plan to unlock a full suite of driving capabilities — not just highway driving, but full origin to destination capability, including the ability to navigate city environments and surface streets. To start out and make our technology available sooner, we also plan to leverage what we call  transfer hubs, where the truck will be autonomously driven to a facility right off the freeway and then manually driven to the end destination.

We believe that our extensive experience driving on surface streets with passenger cars through our Waymo One ride-hailing service, as well as through our Waymo Via local delivery efforts, will help us accelerate our progress here.

“Waymo Via trucking will first tackle line- and long-haul routes on freeways, and ultimately, we plan to unlock a full suite of driving capabilities.”

ACT News: The Waymo website mentions “value add” (“With the Waymo Driver in charge of getting your goods where they need to go, your time and energy will be freed to focus on creating meaningful customer experiences”). How can this technology assist companies in creating added value to their customers?

Charlie Jatt: Our Waymo Via solution is targeted towards fleets who can leverage our technology to reap benefits across safety, dependable performance, efficiency gains, and cost savings. All of these benefits will help these companies better serve their end customers by freeing up time and money to spend on increasing the level of service and support fleets can offer their customers.

We also believe that fleets and other industry players have a tremendous opportunity to create new value for their customers with our technology. One example is around freight visibility – imagine a shipping customer can see everything in their supply chain down to the minute and down to the meter. Another example is around timing – imagine a world where loading appointment windows are accurate within 5 minutes. With the help of industry, we think that we can enable some really cool long-term benefits of a new logistics paradigm.

ACT News: How does Waymo envision the truck driver’s role in this evolution towards full autonomy?

Charlie Jatt: We’re optimistic about how this technology will spawn many new businesses and jobs, including some that the world has yet to imagine. For example, as part of our current operations we’ve built out roles such as autonomous driving dispatchers, technicians, and customer support that have never existed before.

Additionally, truck drivers do more than drive trucks. There will continue to be a need for humans within trucking operations, as we at Waymo are only focused right now on the driving task, not the other tasks that need to be done to support this driving. The industry will still need people to load and unload cargo, inspect trucks, record deliveries, refuel, and clean the vehicles.

Lastly, there’s a great synergy in that drivers want to do local jobs, and autonomous trucks are really better suited towards the line- and long-haul use cases. So we anticipate there may be a gradual shift in driving jobs being very locally focused, intra-city use cases.

ACT News: How is Waymo undertaking the specific challenges related to commercial freight movement, from the different terrains to the change from open highway to city driving?

Charlie Jatt: We’re designing and testing our system to work safely and reliably in the toughest environments, so that our vehicles are prepared for the range types of challenging road conditions we might expect them to encounter on any route.

One way we do this is through simulation. Many freeway driving miles are relatively simple, so we combine real-world data collection with advanced simulation and structured testing to create rare scenarios that give our Waymo Driver more experience responding to different kinds of situations on the road, even the most rare ones that could occur, such as a mattress falling off the back of a pickup truck.  In total, the Waymo Driver has driven across 10 states in the U.S. and accumulated over 20 million miles of autonomous driving experience on public roads, with an additional 20 billion miles in simulation.

“We’re designing and testing our system to work safely and reliably in the toughest environments.”

In addition to preparing for the long-tail events and all of the various scenarios that could occur on a route, one more obvious challenge is weather, which can change drastically over the course of a long-haul freight route. In order to focus on the most important challenges first, we’re starting on routes in the Southwest U.S. because they have the most favorable weather conditions — but even here we are not immune to weather. As we target future scaling, we also prepare our Waymo Driver to be ready to tackle diverse weather conditions that we’re likely to encounter across the entire continental U.S.

ACT News: How is Waymo working with state and federal agencies in to create autonomous vehicle regulations, policy and legislation? 

Charlie Jatt: It hopefully goes without saying that Waymo abides by the laws of any jurisdiction in which it operates. And when you look at the local, state, federal, and international levels, there are a lot of different laws to navigate.

We work closely with regulators and policymakers at every level of government to keep them informed about our technology and operations as well to help foster policies that will ensure the safe and timely deployment of autonomous trucks.

We recognize that this technology is not one that everyone gets to experience on a daily basis,  so part of our job as a leader in this industry is to “engage early, engage often” on sharing what our technology currently does and what it will be able to do, For example, we hosted a previous FMCSA Administrator for a tour of our operations center in Arizona and have done deep dives with NHTSA experts on our safety performance data.

For more on autonomous technology, join Jatt and others for the Autonomous Advantage: The State and Future of Autonomy for Fleets session at this year’s ACT Expo, August 30 – September 2, 2021.