Waymo, the self-driving startup backed by Google’s parent company Alphabet, is best known as a leader in making autonomous driving systems for small cars and minivans. But its CEO John Krafcik, like many of his auto tech peers, wants to take his company’s futuristic technology one step further… to trucks.
“Our technology can make trucking safer and stronger, and fill a pressing need for more drivers in many parts of the world,” Krafcik said.
Expanding self-driving from cars to trucks may sound like a standard move for an auto tech company, but it’s actually quite a bold promise, because applying new technology to automobiles is often not a one-size-fits-all game.
Take electric cars, for example. Today, millions of electric cars are sold worldwide every year, but there has yet to be an entirely electric truck to reach the market due to the difficulty of making a powerful enough, yet small enough, battery for such a heavy-duty vehicle.
According to a Carnegie Mellon University study this year, a battery powerful enough to drive a semi-truck 600 miles (the range offered by most electric sedans) would require a battery that weighs more than the cargo.
Self-driving trucks, while not subject to the same challenges as electric trucks, will face their own set of hurdles.
Pickup trucks, for example, are designed to be driven on rough terrain and are expected to deal with difficult road conditions, which means their self-driving systems may require a completely different training process than the ones made for small cars running on city roads. Not to mention, the greater damage trucks could cause if things go wrong.
But Krafcik said Waymo’s software is ready to take on the challenge.
“We’ve already conducted road tests of the Waymo Driver in Class 8 trucks across the U.S.,” he said. “And we’re working closely with the ecosystem—shippers, truck makers and tier one suppliers—to ensure a successful deployment.”
If successfully deployed, self-driving trucks could provide a solution to a growing shortage of truck drivers in the U.S. and many European countries. Waymo’s primary rival in the self-driving tech space, Uber, had mulled a similar project in the past, but the program was shut down in July 2018.