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Hunt sets driverless truck test in Texas

by Nathan Owens | June 11, 2021 at 1:55 a.m.

J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. is testing a driverless Waymo truck in Texas to deliver goods between Houston and Fort Worth, the company said Thursday.

The deliveries, expected to happen in the coming weeks, are for one of J.B. Hunt's customers in an industry struggling with driver turnover and driver shortages.

The Lowell-based freight and logistics company is working with Waymo, formerly known as Google's self-driving car project, to evaluate how well the technology can move freight. They plan to use an autonomous semi truck that can hold more than 33,000 pounds, called the Waymo Via, which has a device that uses sensors to map its surroundings and determines where the vehicle should go.

The effort won't be fully autonomous, however. The companies said that Waymo experts, a commercial driver and a software technician, will be on board monitoring all aspects of the Level 4 automation technology on the test runs through Texas.

Craig Harper, chief sustainability officer and executive vice president at J.B. Hunt, said in a written statement that this will be one of the company's first opportunities to receive data and feedback from a driverless semitruck.

"While we believe there will be a need for highly skilled, professional drivers for many years to come, it is important for J.B. Hunt as an industry leader to be involved early in the development of advanced autonomous technologies and driving systems," Harper said.

The companies have worked together on operational and market studies before, but this collaboration is different in that they want to see firsthand how well automated driving technology can work across fleets while enhancing safety and efficiency.

"It's companies and relationships like these that will make this technology a commercial reality in the coming years," Charlie Jatt, head of commercialization for trucking at Waymo, said in remarks to reporters.

The self-driving company has received a lot of attention for its fleet of driverless minivans in Arizona, but less so for its plans to one day start a commercial freight hauling business. Waymo is testing a small fleet of Peterbilt Trucks that have been modified with autonomous driving sensors and software, in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. It is also using its technology on semis from Daimler, the parent company of Mercedes-Benz, to accelerate their long-term goals.

Matthew Young, a trucking analyst with Morningstar, said in an email that large truckers have a strong incentive to both test and inform autonomous technology. But Young said he suspects "it will be many years before there is a discernible impact from fully autonomous [semi] trucks."

Several companies are rushing to get in on the action, but some of them, such as Uber, have abandoned plans. An automated Uber vehicle killed a pedestrian in Arizona. Self-driving truck startup Starsky Robotics went out of business after a failed round of funding last year.

But the digital transformation is evident in the freight hauling business. Earlier this year, J.B. Hunt began working with Google to enhance its digital broker app, J.B. Hunt 360, by using artificial intelligence and machine learning tools. Meanwhile, developments in consumer vehicles are underway as Waymo, part of the Google family, works on projects with Fiat Chrysler, Jaguar Land Rover, Volvo and others.

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