Self-driving car leader Waymo has announced that it will begin its first pilot of self-driving semi trucks with a fleet that’s set to depart Atlanta, Georgia next week, headed for Google’s data centers all the way in California. The fully autonomous trucks will not be using a specially-made variant of Waymo’s usual software; instead, Waymo’s software stack will not be split, and the same AI in charge of driving Waymo’s normal self-driving vehicles like its fleet of Chrysler Pacifica units is learning how to drive big rigs through simulations and data collected from semi-autonomous and human-driven sessions. The trucks will be given full autonomy, but there will be highly trained drivers on hand to take over if needed.
This pilot is Waymo’s very first full-scale, formal test with self-driving semi trucks on public roads, though the company has chalked up miles in 18-wheelers before, mostly in simulations. There are a lot of ways in which driving a semi truck is different from driving a normal-sized passenger vehicle, and it is these sorts of nuances, like making wide turns and considering surroundings in reference to a trailer, that Waymo’s software has been working on perfecting. A cross-country trip with real equipment on public roads will give the software a chance to show what it’s learned in simulations.
It is definitely worth noting that the company’s history with big rigs goes a bit beyond simulations; not long ago, a former Waymo employee by the name of Anthony Levandowski took a few other Waymo employees with him to create a startup called Otto that aimed to retrofit normal trucks with self-driving equipment. Otto was later scooped up by Uber, leading to a lawsuit over theft of trade secrets. In any case, a good part of the development that made Otto’s work possible took place outside of Waymo, so this public pilot will not just be showing off how well the software can drive trucks, but also how quickly it can learn new tasks. If this pilot is successful, self-driving car software could very well be applied to all manner of industrial vehicles in the future, such as trains, forklifts, and cranes, just to name a few.