Waymo, an autonomous driving research and development firm spun from Google’s parent company, Alphabet Inc., has started testing its self-driving technology on Class-8 heavy trucks.
“We’re taking our eight years of experience in building self-driving hardware and software and conducting a technical exploration into how our technology can integrate into a truck,” Waymo said in a statement to Forbes.
Waymo is testing its self-driving tractor-trailers at its private track in California using a Peterbilt truck. Road tests will come later this year in Arizona, where the company is actively enlisting residents to join its first public trial of self-driving cars. A professional driver will be at the wheel of the road-test vehicle at all times.
According to Forbes, “Automated semi-trucks are seen by many researchers as a more attainable application of autonomous vehicle tech in the near term, owing to driving conditions on highways that are less complex than in dense urban areas.”
Companies racing to develop self-driving vehicles note that commercial truck driving is one of the deadliest occupations in the U.S. Each year, commercial truck crashes kill more than 4,000 people and injure more than 116,000 people, Forbes noted. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2015 there were 745 fatal injuries among drivers of tractor-trailers and other heavy trucks, the most of any occupation.
Waymo also noted that self-driving trucks could help minimize the current shortage of commercial drivers in the U.S., which, according to the American Trucking Association, stands at about 50,000 drivers.
Last year, Ottomotto LLC, a competing company that is entangled in legal disputes with Alphabet and Waymo, completed the first paid commercial delivery in a self-driving truck in the U.S. when it ran a load of beer from Fort Collins, Colorado to Denver. A commercial driver was behind the wheel but the trip was fully automated from start to finish.
According to Forbes, Waymo’s truck testing is a “technical exploration” that will help the company modify its sensors and other hardware to work on big vehicles.
“When its (sic) comes to acceleration and braking, for example, the company noted that Class-8 trucks handle very different than its current fleet of minivans and its tiny two-passenger test cars,” Forbes reported.