Rocky Mountain Trucking LLC

Waymo Via trailers

Autonomous trucking is more than a robot replacing a human driver on the highway. The computer needs to account for how to balance trailer loads, something human drivers do by feel.

It is doable. Driverless software developer Waymo Via and logistics giant C.H. Robinson recently completed repeated Dallas-to-Houston beer runs 100% on time with no damage.

Balance requires even freight distribution as a truck travels down the road. That means considering the number of pallets, their weight and dimensions, whether they’re uniform or different sizes, and how high they can be stacked.

“A human driver adjusts for the weight they’re pulling when they’re accelerating or braking and can feel if a load is unbalanced,” Chris O’Brien, C.H. Robinson, chief commercial officer, told FreightWaves. “That has to be transformed into data and fed into Waymo’s machine-learning tools to make those adjustments.”   

Small carrier participation in beer runs

C.H. Robinson chose Corona and Modelo beer, part of Constellation Brands, to see how a small carrier would interact with Waymo’s autonomous Class 8 trucks moving along Interstate 45 from Dallas to Houston. It set up its own pickup point where the carrier’s employees staged the loads and handled the drop and hook of trailers from Waymo’s Level 4-equipped autonomous trucks.

“We want to bring small carriers into the process as well as create a new model that creates more freight for them,” O’Brien said. “Small- and medium-size carriers probably haven’t been as envisioned to be in the middle of the autonomous vehicle world.”

In fact, the majority of more than 7,000 reservations for Navistar purpose-built autonomous trucks received by Waymo rival TuSimple are from larger carriers. It wants to leverage savings from running with no human in the cab.

Driver pay and benefits account for more than 40% of the operating cost of a Class 8 truck, according to the American Transportation Research Institute.

Trimming transfer times

The C.H. Robinson-Waymo pilot began in April. Neither company would disclose the number of runs conducted. Robinson said it has a 16-year relationship with the carrier it chose from its customer base of 85,000. O’Brien declined to name the “highly vetted, strong relationship” carrier used at the meeting point 1.7 miles from I-45. 

The average handoff between the carrier and Waymo took less than 30 minutes. “Eventually, we had it down to 15 minutes,” O’Brien said.

“If that transfer takes a long time, it adds too much complexity and cost,” said Charlie Jatt, Waymo head of trucking commercialization. “That’s going to really undermine the value that autonomous technology can bring.”

Beer runs achieve a ‘seamless and efficient transfer

Before and during the pilot, Robinson had a human-driven truck picking up the load and delivering it to its final destination on time and undamaged. Waymo covered the middle miles between Dallas and Houston in autonomous mode under human supervision 99% of the times. Eventually, Waymo wants to offer driverless trucks as a service to the freight industry.

“We were able to conduct a seamless and efficient transfer,” Jatt told FreightWaves. “We think that’s a pretty good proof point of how the model can scale up over time. The whole strategy is to get all the pieces in place so that by the time the technology is ready, all the operational pieces are ready as well.”

C.H. Robinson customers’ No. 1 request is for technology that can bring efficiency to its operations.

“Efficiency will come from this, especially when it’s at scale,” O’Brien said. “Our biggest takeaway is that the test worked and we want to keep it going.”

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Click for more FreightWaves articles by Alan Adler.