Waymo partners with biggest freight company as trucking industry heats up for robot drivers

Waymo, the self-driving unit of Alphabet Inc., is expanding its ties to the freight transportation industry by partnering with CH Robinson, North America’s largest logistics hub, as part of efforts to to put its robotic truck technology on the road and transport goods for commercial customers.

The Silicon Valley tech company and CH Robinson, based in Prairie, Minn., plan to begin trials using large Waymo Via automated platforms moving freight between Houston and Dallas in a few months for a shipper that both companies declined to identify. For now, Waymo vehicles will have a human backup driver behind the wheel. Companies will also share a wide range of data and Waymo will have access to Navisphere, the software platform that CH Robinson customers use to book and track shipments.

“We see this as a long-term and broad strategic collaboration that will cover many different areas,” CH Robinson chief commercial officer Chris O’Brien told reporters during a briefing. “During and really after the (trials), our companies will collaborate in different ways, using the experience of our two teams, the technology of our two teams, the data of our teams and, ultimately, working to shape and accelerate the future expansion of AV technology and the benefits it brings to shippers and carriers.”

The growing interest in self-driving trucking comes amid months of delays in moving goods to and from ports caused by the pandemic, which in turn has exacerbated a shortage of long-haul truck drivers that American Trucking Associations estimated at 80,000 drivers. Add to that the complication in recent weeks of protests by Canadian truckers who oppose Covid-19 vaccination rules that have disrupted parts shipments and reduced auto production in the US Midwest, and a potential technological fix. begins to look more attractive. While Waymo and its competitors, including TuSimple, Embark, Aurora and Kodiak, have yet to prove the safety, reliability and commercial viability of large unmanned autonomous vehicles on US highways, there has been a noticeable wave of new partnerships.

This week, Aurora teamed up with freight carrier US Xpress to explore the best ways to apply its technology, in addition to previous partnerships with Uber Freight and FedEx. Last week, San Francisco-based Embark and freight carrier Knight-Swift Transportation launched a truck transfer program that gives Knight-Swift and its drivers access to Embark’s ride-hailing system. Under the program, Knight-Swift will directly own and maintain trucks equipped with Embark’s computer system, software and sensors. Waymo Via, the trucking and delivery division of Waymo, also recently announced plans to work with trucking giant JB Hunt, while TuSimple said its robotic trucks will pick up goods from Union Pacific rail depots and transport them to distribution centers.

“CH Robinson has an extensive network of 200,000 shippers and carriers, 20 million shipments per year and information on over 3 million shipping lanes,” said Charlie Jatt, Chief Marketing Officer of Waymo Via for trucking. “Together, we can combine the logistics expertise and data scale of CH Robinson with the technology expertise of Waymo Via to help tailor this new product to the specific needs of the logistics industry and apply it where it promises the most benefits.”

Self-driving technology looks particularly attractive for long-haul routes where driver shortages are “quite chronic”, said CH Robinson’s O’Brien.

The truck driver shortage in North America is not a new challenge, it has just become more evident with some of the increased demand and Covid, but there are a lot of trends that have really worked against this problem today. today, making it worse,” he said. . “The driver pool in North America is aging towards retirement – the average age of a North American Class 8 truck driver is approaching 50 – and the population of 21-year-olds who are available to enter driver population has decreased.

“Long-haul autonomous trucking could be like a new mode of transportation and a way to address the driver shortage itself, but it can also accelerate the growth of driver-attractive short-haul freight,” O said. ‘Brian.

The companies did not disclose the financial terms of their technology partnership. The company Waymo, which operates a robotaxi service in suburban Phoenix, did not specify the revenue it generates from this activity and deliveries by Waymo Via vans in Arizona.

Shares of CH Robinson rose less than 1% to $89.86 in Nasdaq trading on Tuesday.

Lucas E. Kelly