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Uber's self-driving big rigs are already traveling across Arizona

| Thursday, March 8, 2018, 10:06 a.m.
Uber loaded its San Francisco fleet of self-driving cars on a self-driving Otto truck bound for Arizona.
Uber loaded its San Francisco fleet of self-driving cars on a self-driving Otto truck bound for Arizona.

If you've driven on a highway in Arizona in recent months, you may have shared the road with an automated truck without even realizing it.

This week, Uber - the ride-hailing network rushing to control the future of automated driving - announced that the company has begun transporting freight using automated big rigs.

The robot-driven Volvo trucks, which include a human backup driver, have been limited to Arizona highways since they were rolled out in November, the company said. Uber has not revealed how many automated trucks they have on the road or whether they've been involved in any accidents. The company does not have a formal partnership with Volvo, but has instead retrofitted Volvo trucks with their technology.

“This a big step forward in self-driving truck technology, and the future of the freight industry at large,” the company said in a statement.

Though Uber's trucks aren't electric, the trucking industry is on the verge of significant changes, analysts say, as transportation companies such as Uber, Tesla and Waymo begin to develop electric, autonomous trucks.

A start-up called Embark recently drove their automated truck across the country without a driver, completing a 2,400-mile journey from California to Florida.

The changes are being driven by a desire for greater safety, lower fuel costs and cleaner energy. Freight movement - a category that includes trucks, trains, ships and planes that carry goods - accounts for 16 percent of all corporate greenhouse gas emissions, which constitutes an enormous carbon footprint, according to the Environmental Defense Fund. More than 4,000 people were killed and 116,000 others injured in accidents involving large trucks in 2015, the most recent year statistics were available, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Uber's current system - known as “Uber Freight” - relies heavily on human drivers, who escort the self-driving truck across the Arizona state border before the big rig (with a vehicle operator in the driver's seat) completes the long haul, highway portion of the trip, according to Uber. As the load nears its destination, the company said, the vehicle is handed off to a conventional driver who takes over and completes the delivery.

In a video published Tuesday, Uber lays out how the company's trucking system works in more detail using the stories of two truckers from different parts of the country. The highly coordinated system (outlined in a second video) is dependent upon “transfer hubs,” where loads are transferred to self-driving trucks and drivers return to their starting point with different loads. Uber hopes the system will cut down on the time drivers spend on the road and the amount of time freight languishes in warehouses.

“We envision a future where truck drivers and self-driving trucks work together to move freight around the country,” the company wrote in a November blog post. “Self-driving trucks will manage long haul driving on some interstate highways, but having two hands on the wheel will still be the best way to get a load to its final destination.”

“Truck drivers possess the critical skills that self-driving trucks may never match - like backing into a tight dock, navigating a busy industrial yard, or moving axles on a trailer,” the post added.

Uber is not the only company bringing automation to trucking. Waymo - formerly Google's self-driving car project and one of Uber's main competitors - is also exploring automated trucking, according to Wired. Waymo has been developing self-driving technology for nearly a decade and recently settled a heated court battle with Uber over alleged theft of the company's autonomous vehicle technology.

In November, Tesla revealed an electric big rig that can travel 500 miles on a single charge and comes with Enhanced Autopilot, the second generation of Tesla's semiautonomous technology.

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