Aurora Innovation, a California-based autonomous driving technology company, begins this week testing autonomous trucks made by Bellevue-based Paccar, carrying FedEx loads between Dallas and Houston. The pilot marks the next phase of a partnership between the three companies that was announced in January.
“There is nothing more transformative” to the economics of the trucking industry than the ability to cut drivers, said John Rich, CTO of Paccar.
The fleet of a dozen trucks, owned by Aurora, will be used for “several trips per week” on the 500 mile round trip route while carrying real and lucrative loads, an Aurora spokesperson said. . The company has equipped trucks built by Paccar with its driverless technology, which includes sensors, cameras, radars and additional software.
Rich said Paccar has a dedicated team working with Aurora and designed the Peterbilt 579s with additional software capabilities that Paccar vehicles normally don’t have, allowing them to be controlled by a computer. The trucks also include backups for critical systems such as steering, braking and power supply that trip in the event of driverless technology failure.
“None of this stuff can really be an afterthought addition to a truck,” he said. “It must be integrated from the start and developed in parallel.
The trucks used in the pilot project will have a human safety driver behind the wheel.
Aurora said it hopes to start selling its autonomous trucking infrastructure in some states by the end of 2023 without a safety driver. A spokesperson said the driverless safety tests would begin before that date.
Rich said he preferred not to estimate when the project would remove a safety conductor. “You don’t have to rush. You don’t need to do a PR stunt … and fire a pilot early. “
He said long-haul trucks are a more likely application for driverless technology than passenger cars, as highways are more manageable challenges than bustling cities that present “unconstrained” problems.
The announcement of the testing program follows poor earnings for FedEx, which yesterday posts a 7% drop in quarterly profit partly due to labor shortages. Autonomous trucking has been touted as a way to less depend on drivers, with the potential to lower costs for transport companies. At the same time, it threatens to displace millions of workers who drive for a living.
Rebecca Yeung, vice president of innovation and advanced technologies at FedEx, said the company was less interested in applying autonomous trucking to routes currently operated by its own drivers and more interested in using it for routes. routes currently outsourced to third parties. For example, FedEx outsources routes to third parties when it cannot keep up with shipping volumes during peak activity.
“Our driver is our greatest asset,” said Yeung, saying that drivers and autonomous technology are “complementary in nature and not confrontational”.
Drivers also do more than just drive, said Raj Venkatesan, a professor at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia. They are also responsible for supervising the loading and unloading of freight, monitoring inventory and accounting.
Still, Venkatesan said, cost savings are likely. Businesses will have access to more data on their fleets, including vehicle usage, traffic patterns and energy consumption.
“All of this allows you to better manage your resources and also to better deploy resources,” he said.
Rich said he believes the shift in trucking jobs is likely to happen, but that it is also likely to “improve the quality of life for many drivers,” given the difficulty of the trucking jobs.
“These jobs are difficult because they are far from families, and they disrupt your life enough if you go on the road for six weeks,” he said. “… It’s just not popular work for the younger generations in American society.”