A (virtual) test ride in a Waymo long-haul truck

A filepic of a Waymo autonomous vehicle in Ohio. — AFP

Earlier today, around 10am in Phoenix, a baby blue Peterbilt truck pulled onto a westbound land of Interstate 10 southeast of the city. At the wheel was an "autonomous specialist,” as Alphabet Inc’s self-driving vehicle unit Waymo calls him, named Dave.

A few seconds after merging onto the interstate, Dave released his grip on the wheel and let the truck begin driving itself. With the pandemic limiting in-person reporting, Waymo offered its first long-haul trucking demonstration for journalists virtually. Along with a couple dozen other reporters, I took the ride via live stream, on a one-minute delay.

"I'm definitely looking forward to the time when we can do this in person again,” said Pablo Abad, product manager for Waymo’s trucking division Via. Together with planning and behaviour engineering lead Brad Neuman, Abad narrated as the robot driver hauled a trailer for about 15 miles along I-10 and Route 202.

Since 2010, when John Markoff of the New York Times first rode in one of Google’s self-driving cars – years before the name changed to Waymo – the journalist demo has become a ritual in the industry. I did one two years ago, in one of Waymo’s Chrysler Pacifica minivans in Chandler, Arizona.

They are fun, but of limited value. A demo can verify that a technology is not vapourware, that there is a car somewhere with a steering wheel that moves on its own.

And it provides a chance to assess performance: Can the car change lanes in traffic or make an unprotected left? Is it smooth or jerky? There is also a subjective element: Does the ride feel terrifying or routine? (For a good example of the former, read Ashlee Vance’s 2015 ride with George Hotz, who declared mid-ride, "Dude, the first time it worked was this morning.”)

But these accounts don’t add up to data, and the gap between ready-for-a-demo and ready-for-commercial-use is wide. In Waymo’s case, a decade passed between Markoff’s first ride and the launch of a fully driverless ride-hailing service last year.

So what can be gleaned from a virtual self-driving truck demo? Here is some of what I saw:

Traffic was light and the weather sunny. In the passenger seat next to Dave, across a plexiglass barrier, sat another specialist, Drew, with a laptop open. Both wore face masks. Dave kept both hands within a couple inches of the steering wheel at all times. Cars and truck on the road around were framed in green and purple boxes on the data visualisation system that was on screen along with a camera view of the road ahead and a live shot of the inside of the cab. The truck seemed to handle lane changes and merges smoothly.

Cars frequently whipped past on both sides. At one point, the truck switched to the middle lane after detecting a vehicle stopped on the shoulder ahead.

When it came time to change direction on the 202, which required getting off the freeway and making two left turns on surface streets, Dave took control back from the autonomous system. "We're not currently driving autonomously on surface streets,” said Abad. Waymo has been testing heavy duty trucks since 2017 and currently has them on roads in Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas.

The company, when asked by email today, declined to disclose how many trucks are in its testing fleet or how many miles they have covered to date. Last year, Waymo signed an agreement with Daimler AG’s trucking division to begin equipping Freightliner Cascadia trucks with its fifth-generation autonomous driving system.

Today’s demo used a Peterbilt truck equipped with the fourth-generation Waymo Driver, a system that includes more than a dozen cameras, radar and three different types of light detection and ranging, or lidar sensors, including a long-range variety that can detect objects up to three football fields away.

Waymo has not set a target publicly for when a commercial product will be ready. "We're looking at driving out within the next few years or so,” said Abad, during a videoconference after the demo.

The rollout, he added, would be gradual, as it has been for the ride-hailing service, and would begin in the southwestern states: "Autonomous trucking is not going to be like a light switch that suddenly flips and all of a sudden now we have autonomous trucks on the road where previously we didn't the day before.”

The company, he said, was still considering its best paths to market and was open to using a depot-to-depot system, where local drivers take over at freeway off-ramps to handle the last miles on surface streets.

While highways offer "a more structured environment,” as Neuman called it, than city streets, trucking comes with its own peculiar challenges. Stopping 80,000 pounds of freight when something goes wrong at 65 miles per hour, for instance, is not a problem that ride-hail vehicles have to handle.

The company’s trucks, said Neuman, are designed to have different responses depending on the situation, including pulling over onto the shoulder or continuing to the next exit at reduced speed. – Bloomberg

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