Uber Freight is now hauling cargo with self-driving trucks

On the open road with Uber Freight.
Image: uber 

Self-driving trucks are moving freight in Arizona using Uber Freight, the company announced Tuesday.

The tool helped transfer a load last month from the Midwest to its final destination in Southern California. For 340 miles of the trip, the truck drove itself across Arizona highways. Uber Freight has been coordinating hauls like this since November.

This isn’t the first time the company has driven self-driving trucks on public roads. In October 2016, an autonomous truck (with a driver in the cab) drove 120 miles through Colorado with a haul of Budweiser.

Even so, this latest trip through Arizona is a feat for the company. It’s moving away from testing and short-haul trips to implementing its logistics platform on real, full delivery routes. 

A video shows how a truck driver used the app last month.

Here’s what else you should know about the self-driving trucks coming to a highway near you.

1. Uber Freight is its own app

You can’t order a truck from your Uber app, but Uber Freight does use similar technology. Only it matches truckers with loads to haul. A trucker gets paid through Uber, much like a driver for its ride-hailing app.

Using a transfer hub model, Uber wants to connect, say, a local farm to a truck making a long haul on a similar route before transferring to a local delivery truck. Eventually the long-haul portion of the trip will be taken over by self-driving trucks. 

2. Robots aren’t taking over trucking — yet

Sure, a portion of the February trip between Sanders and Topock, Arizona, used a self-driving truck. But there was an operator in the driver’s seat and two other “conventional” truck drivers were part of the overall trip. So the self-driving trucking experience isn’t truly driverless, which may come as a relief to an industry concerned about job loss.

Uber has claimed the trucking industry doesn’t have anything to fear — jobs will be boosted, not eliminated, by its logistics and autonomous trucking technology. Uber projects that trucking jobs would increase by 766,000 by 2028 without its tech. But if you add self-driving trucks into mix, even more jobs open up. In a scenario with 1 million self-driving trucks on the road by 2028, Uber says 1 million drivers would shift to short haul drives since the trucks can handle the lengthy highway trips and 400,000 new jobs would be needed to keep up with truck demand.

An MIT Technology Review article on self-driving trucks determined, “Technology is unlikely to replace truckers entirely anytime soon. But it will almost certainly alter the nature of the job…”

As shipping and logistics tech company Freightos CEO and founder Zvi Schreiber said in a call, “They really emphasize the human element — but the fact is that a driverless truck doesn’t need a driver eventually.” It’s just a matter of when.

3. This is a feat of logistics engineering

Yes, Uber is building autonomous vehicle hardware — but it’s much more than that. This is a feat of logistical efficiency. It’s less about sensors and lights to navigate the road and more about finding the most efficient route to get a load to its destination, and quickly.

This is how Uber Freight works with transfer hubs to move loads from the road to the warehouse.

4. The competition is heating up

Uber acquired autonomous truck startup Otto back in 2016, but other companies are also looking to use self-driving trucks for deliveries. 

Chinese startup TuSimple started testing autonomous trucks in Arizona last year, while Volvo, Embark, and other truck makers continue testing out the technology.

On the logistics side, other companies are developing software to plan truck routes, but none are as well-positioned as Uber, according to Matt Fleckenstein, CMO at Seattle-based workflow automation company Nintex.

“So much of the logistics world has to do with big data and software and optimizing of routes and logistics of stuff,” he said. “That positions [Uber] really well.”

The U.S. Postal Service, FedEx, UPS, and other competitors “who have not made serious headway in terms of staffing for autonomous vehicle development,” Fleckenstein noted, “they are going to be stuck behind the eight ball.”

Freight logistics companies like Convoy are going up against the trip-planning prowess of Uber and its sleek, user-friendly apps.

5. It’s going to be a bumpy ride

Uber strategically rolled out its Freight platform in Arizona where regulations are more lax than other places, but it still faces some roadblocks to truly autonomous trucking, even in the cooperative state. Other states like Nevada are allowing modified forms of driverless truck driving by Daimler’s Inspiration Truck and Tesla’s semi-trucks.

In California, trucks and other commercial vehicles were excluded from the DMV’s approval of truly autonomous vehicles starting next month. Trucks still need to have someone in the cab and assisting the truck. 

Uber Freight is just getting started. So far, it’s only operating self-driving trucks in Arizona.

Meanwhile, Tesla CEO Elon Musk was showing off his $150,000 Tesla Semi making its first cargo trip between Nevada and the Bay Area on Wednesday. 

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