Uber’s self-driving trucks are now moving freight across Arizona

We’ve long known that Uber is working on developing a self-driving truck. What we didn’t know is that it’s already operating a commercial service using the vehicle and has been for the past few months.

The company better known for transporting passengers than freight revealed on Tuesday that it’s now operating a service on highways in Arizona, though it declined to offer any details on how many trucks it’s using and the products it’s transporting.

Uber’s autonomous truck development — the focus of its Advanced Technology Group that’s also working on a driverless car — comes out of the company’s acquisition of the self-driving truck startup Otto in 2016.

As shown in the video above, Uber’s current system splits the delivery into three stages. First, a trucker collects the freight from a warehouse and drives a relatively short distance to a hub at the edge of the highway. Here, the driver drops it off for a self-driving truck to collect. The self-driving truck then takes the goods along the highway to another hub close to the delivery point. Another trucker collects the load and transports it over the last few miles to the recipient.

At the current time, Uber’s autonomous truck has a trained Uber personnel behind the wheel to monitor the ride, but the long-term goal is to do away with the driver for the long-distance drives. According to Uber, the short, human-driven journeys offer two benefits — continued employment for truckers, and the opportunity to spend more time at home than living on the road. For businesses, it would mean increased efficiency as goods would be transported around the clock, with no concerns over safety issues regarding drowsy or distracted drivers.

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

It described the transfer hubs as “an essential part of our vision for the future. We see them placed strategically across the country near cities and towns, bridging the gap between local and long-haul trucking.”

Moving forward

Uber’s revelation that it’s now running a commercial service demonstrates its confidence in the platform that it’s been operating over the last few months. It’s likely that the recent out-of-court settlement with Waymo also cleared the way for the news release. The two companies had been locked in a bitter battle after Waymo, the autonomous-vehicle unit of Google parent Alphabet, accused Uber of stealing technology secrets via a former Google employee who went on to launch Otto. Uber always denied any wrongdoing, and in February struck a deal with Waymo to finally put the matter to bed.

Looking ahead, Uber will continue to enhance it truck-based technology, but isn’t thought to be interested in owning its own fleet of autonomous trucks. Rather, it envisages expanding its Uber Freight platform that links shippers with drivers, while at the same time striking partnerships with shippers that pay to incorporate its technology. Taking large autonomous trucks beyond the highway and into busy urban environments also looks to be a long way off, for Uber at least, though regulators too would also have to be satisfied over safety if such a plan is ever presented.

The competition in the space is fierce, with other outfits such as Waymo and Tesla building their own trucks with autonomous capabilities. Another company, Embark, is also operating a service using self-driving trucks, transporting refrigerators hundreds of miles between Texas and California, with a human engineer behind the wheel to keep an eye on the ride. The company also recently completed a coast-to-coast run between California and Florida.