Waymo Via expands UPS partnership to include autonomous freight with Class 8 trucks

Waymo Via, the delivery division of Alphabet’s self-driving arm, is expanding its existing partnership with UPS to carry freight via autonomous Class 8 trucks. The six-week pilot, which kicked off last week and will continue until the end of the year to support the holiday season, takes place in Texas between Houston and Dallas-Forth Worth.

Waymo is not sharing the specific number of trucks it will use for the pilot, but it did say “multiple trucks” from its test fleet of Peterbilts that are equipped with its fifth-generation Driver will be delivering goods for UPS’s North American Air Freight (NAAF) unit. The trucks will have two autonomous specialists onboard — one driver with a commercial driver’s license and one software technician — who will monitor Driver’s operations while in autonomous mode. The trucks will be self-driving only on highways, and will switch back to manual mode for surface street portions, a spokesperson for Waymo told TechCrunch.

Back in January 2020, Waymo began delivering smaller parcels for UPS in its autonomous Chrysler Pacifica minivans in Phoenix, Arizona. The goal of that initial pilot, which wrapped earlier this year, was to develop a long-term plan for how the companies can work together, so this latest extension makes good on that intention.

The first UPS pilot, “brought incredible learnings for us on things like hailing the vehicle, loading/unloading parcels and more,” said a Waymo spokesperson. “While this trucking pilot won’t be related to our local delivery pilots or have any local delivery components, we’ll be building on our initial learnings and working with the UPS team for these trial runs.”

If the trucking pilot goes well, Waymo might pose a threat to companies like TuSimple that have been partnering with UPS and its NAAF division since 2019. During TuSimple’s Q3 earnings call, the AV startup said it’s expanding its autonomous freight network from Arizona to the east coast ahead of schedule so that it can reach NAAF terminals in Orlando and Charlotte. TuSimple says it has already completed 160,000 miles of freight hauls for NAAF.

“These Class 8 trial runs will build on all of the learnings and success we’ve had testing with UPS over the years, as well as our previous Class 8 trial runs with other carriers across unique verticals, including J.B. Hunt,” Waymo wrote in a blog post announcing the partnership.

In June, Waymo announced a freight hauling partnership with J.B. Hunt along the busy Interstate 45 between Houston and Forth Worth. A couple of months later, the company announced it would build a dedicated trucking hub in Dallas and partner with Ryder for fleet management services in a move to scale up autonomous trucking operations in Texas, Arizona and California. The Ryder relationship has already begun at a temporary Dallas facility, but the hub won’t open until the first half of next year, says Waymo.