Questioning Autonomy’s Future in Commercial Transport

January 4, 2023

Technology has a way of both easing stress and causing concern, especially when safety is involved. We have seen it time and time again, from seat belts to advanced driver assistance systems, and each time a new feature is introduced, there is both applause and anxiety that follows.

Enter autonomous driving. It been a go-to in more science-fiction movies than you can count, but it has finally become a reality. Depending on the level of autonomy, drivers can sit back and take their hands off the wheel — and in some cases, their eyes as well. For companies like Waymo and Einride, this technology will define how goods and people are transported throughout the country and around the world.

Where Are We?

The news is full of stories of partnerships, technological milestones, funding campaigns, and more revolving around the autonomous vehicle (AV) industry. For some companies, like Waymo, the news is ongoing, since the AV tech developer started working in the space since 2008, when it was under the Google banner. Since then, the company has evolved, currently focusing on the Waymo One ride-hailing service and Waymo Via, its AV solution for commercial trucks.

“Our Waymo Via trucking solution is being designed to reduce the risk of incidents on the road, supplement the growing need for drivers to deliver goods, and maximize fleet uptime, ultimately ensuring shipments arrive safely, efficiently, and on-time and helping address several key challenges that exist in the industry today,” said Charlie Jatt, Waymo’s head of commercialization for trucking.

The company has also developed a local delivery service that is currently operational in Phoenix and San Francisco. According to Jatt, Waymo is exploring how the Waymo Driver technology can offer both customer and operational benefits and complete deliveries safely, efficiently, and, at some point, at scale. This project includes partners such as AutoNation, delivering car parts to and from dealerships; UPS, shuttling packages between UPS stores and its Tempe, Arizona, hub; and Albertsons, delivering groceries from select stores in the San Francisco Bay Area to customer homes.

Swedish transport company Einride is also focused on designing, developing, and deploying technologies for heavy-duty freight mobility, according to Michelle Avary, Einride’s vice president of product strategy and government affairs.

“We are working with a number of clients across the U.S. and Europe in providing them autonomous, electric, and digital shipping solutions,” said Avary. “Specifically, a number of our clients have deployed our electric heavy-duty fleets.”

Those clients include GE Appliances, Maersk, Oatly, Bridgestone, and Beyond Meat. The company’s latest pilot project of its autonomous vehicle with GE Appliances in Selmer, Tennessee recently wrapped.

“We were the first with an electric, autonomous vehicle without a safety driver on board to operate on U.S. public road,” added Avary.

Where Does the Driver Fit?

The commercial driver shortage is not a new phenomenon, but it is adding to the AV conversation. While some believe autonomous trucks could remove the driver from the equation, many argue that they will always be a place for them in some fashion.

“We believe that the future of autonomous vehicles will always have a human in the loop,” said Avary. “For us, that is played out with our remote operators, who can monitor one or a fleet of autonomous vehicles at the same time. Remote operators are valuable assets as they become a subject-matter experts in the electrification of autonomous vehicles.”

New careers opportunities could also emerge from automation, offering “skilled workers with real-life trucking experience, positions that offer better salaries, a safe environment, more work life balance, and job security,” she added. “In short, we are providing multiple solutions to the present and future challenges, and improving lives and working conditions.”

Waymo’s Jatt agrees that AV tech can address the shortage of approximately 80,000 drivers that the commercial trucking industry is facing with this new mode of transportation.

“Our solution can be integrated into their operations and exist alongside human-driven trucks, helping to narrow the growing gap of drivers and trucks we’re seeing across the country,” said Jatt. “There will continue to be a great need for drivers over the coming years, as this transition will not happen overnight. Longer term, we look forward to all the new jobs this technology will spur, from operations that help support autonomous driving such as dispatchers, technicians, customer support, etc., to the roles that the world has yet to imagine.”

What About Safety?

One of the key issues — and drivers — related to the possible widespread adoption of autonomous vehicles is safety. According to some reports, AVs could decrease on-road crashes and fatalities, and even reduce traffic in some highly congested areas. This, of course, will take time to prove, and even longer to adopt nationally.

“There are more than 1.3 million deaths worldwide due to vehicle crashes — it’s one of the top 10 causes of death in the world,” said Jatt, highlighting the fact that number of people who died in large truck crashes was increased 28% between 2009 and 2020. “At Waymo, safety is at the heart of everything we do, and we believe strongly that AVs have the potential to dramatically improve road safety.”

In 2021, Waymo released a report that showed that during more than 6 million miles of autonomous driving, Waymo vehicles were involved in a small number of minor collisions, most of which were caused by human error on the part of other drivers. The company also published a paper that showed how the Waymo Driver would perform in simulated versions of real-life crashes that happened on the roads the vehicles drive on in Chandler, Arizona.

“Our data showed that if the Waymo Driver would have been involved in those collisions, it would have avoided or mitigated every crash, except for the one where we were struck from behind,” added Jatt.

While Einride’s Avary points to the fact that there are several contributing factors leading to vehicle crashes, including human error, the company currently supports the Swedish governments’ goal of Vision Zero — that the acceptable number of fatalities and injuries on roadways is zero.

“Automated driving systems can help get to zero fatalities and injuries by removing key contributing factors of human error such as speeding, distracted driving, and drunk driving,” she added. “With our implementation of a model where both machine and human are working together, we are committed to continuing to lower numbers in relation to on-road safety.”

What’s the Future?

The future is now in many ways, pardon the cliché, and like many other companies, Einride’s pilot projects and related operations are laying the groundwork for the next five to 10 years, according to Avary.

“A key part of that will be partnering with [regulatory agencies] to see that commercial integration with autonomous technology is not only be possible, but to also be scalable,” she said, adding that the company looks forward to a time when the U.S. Department of Transportation creates a clear path to the commercialization of the autonomous goods movement and the manufacturing of “purpose-built autonomous heavy-duty trucks” in the U.S.

According to Jatt, Waymo not only predicts that there will be fully autonomous trucks with no human drivers on the road in the next five years, it will only take a decade to deploy them at scale.

“To get there, over the coming years, we will continue to grow our Waymo Via program, ramp up our testing operations, and build a set of partnerships to commercialize the Waymo Driver technology for the trucking industry,” said Jatt. “It’s something that first and foremost needs to be guided by safety and tech readiness, rather than arbitrary timelines. So exactly when and where we will deploy at scale will be determined by those factors of safety and tech readiness as well as regulatory considerations.”