Self-Driving Trucks Might Hit the Streets Before Autonomous Taxis, Waymo CEO Says

The company is currently using a single truck for autonomous testing.

AP Photo/Eric Risberg

Waymo is suing Uber over the alleged theft of self-driving car trade secrets, but it is also broadening its efforts to compete with the ride-sharing company. Not only is the former Google self-driving car project investigating autonomous trucks, CEO John Krafcik believes such self-driving rigs could be commercialized before robotic ride-sharing, which many companies point to as the first major application for self-driving vehicles.

"Ride-sharing makes a lot of sense for the world," Krafcik said a Bloomberg-run conference at Cornell University's New York City engineering campus. "For goods transportation, which could travel primarily on highways, there's a good and compelling use case there, too. Either of those two might be the first ones you see."

Krafcik said Waymo is looking at logistics and delivery models, but did not disclose specific plans for an autonomous trucking service. Waymo does own one truck that has been fitted with sensors and autonomous-driving software for testing, according to Bloomberg.

A two-pronged strategy based on trucking and ride-sharing mirrors Uber's approach. The ride-sharing company ultimately hopes to automate its bread-and-butter business, but has also been testing self-driving trucks since purchasing startup Otto last year. Waymo filed a lawsuit against Uber in February, alleging that Uber took possession of files stolen by Otto founder Anthony Levandowski, a former Waymo employee.

Because they spend most of their time driving on highways, long-haul trucks present less of a technical challenge than cars, which must navigate chaotic city streets. But Waymo will face different problems in developing self-driving trucks. Uber already has a significant head start, and other companies are jumping on the autonomous-truck bandwagon. Chinese startup TuSimple wants to start a pilot autonomous-trucing service in Arizona in 2019, and Tesla may try to equip its electric semi-truck with autonomous driving capabilities.

Companies developing autonomous trucks will also face stiffer and more organized resistance from the people whose jobs are on the line. The possibility of lost trucking jobs has already gotten the attention of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, for example That powerful union may help truckers put up more of a fight than workers in other industries set to be disrupted by autonomous vehicles.