By Alan Ohnsman, Forbes
Waymo, Alphabet Inc.’s autonomous driving unit, is expanding work with J.B. Hunt and that the U.S. freight-hauling giant will be the first commercial customer for its robotic truck services.
Lowell, Arkansas-based J.B. Hunt, which began a pilot program with Waymo Via, the tech company’s logistics operation, last year hauling cargo in test runs on the I-45 freeway in Texas. Now the plan is for it to be Waymo Via’s first freight partner “when we deploy fully autonomous operations in Texas the next few years,” Waymo said in a blog post. Ahead of that, the companies will expand their test runs using Waymo’s automated big rigs (with human safety drivers as backups).
This strategic alliance “paves the way for us both to help grow the foundations for successful deployment and to capitalize on the benefits of autonomous driving technology,” said Charlie Jatt, Waymo’s head of commercialization for trucking.
The Alphabet unit already generates a small amount of revenue from its on-demand robotaxi service in suburban Phoenix, with plans to expand that offering in the San Francisco Bay region. Yet autonomous trucks and delivery services are quickly becoming a core application of the technology it’s been developing for more than a decade, starting as the Google Self-Driving Car Project. Rising demand for freight services, a shortage of long-haul truck drivers and a somewhat simpler operating environment–highways rather than city streets–is intensifying competition between Waymo and autonomous tech rivals including TuSimple, Embark, Aurora and Kodiak, who are all targeting the $800 billion U.S. trucking market.
J.B. Hunt said the multiyear program with Waymo, starting in Texas, will help it learn how to integrate autonomous trucks across its U.S. logistics operations. The companies didn’t share financial details of the partnership.
“Our pilot last year with Waymo Via really helped us get a hands-on understanding of how autonomous driving technology could be implemented within our operations,” said Craig Harper, J.B. Hunt’s chief sustainability officer. “We believe autonomous driving technology will help us create the most efficient transportation network in North America.”
Waymo’s fleet of about 50 AI-enabled trucks, loaded up with sensors including laser lidar, radar and cameras and a high-powered computing system, operate with human backup drivers behind the wheel, for now. Last month, TuSimple completed a “driver out” test run of one of its trucks in Arizona, with no human driver in the cab.