Transportation

Waymo puts the brakes on self-driving trucks program

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Class 8 truck with Waymo Via logo and CH Robinson logo
Image Credits: Waymo

Waymo is tapping the brakes on self-driving trucks and shifting most of its capital, resources and talent to one commercial bet: ride-hailing.

The move, which was announced Wednesday in a company blog post, comes six years after Waymo first tested its autonomous vehicle system in Class 8 trucks. The company emphasized the decision was driven by the commercial opportunities in applying its autonomous vehicle technology to ride-hailing.

Robotaxis (or ride-hailing using driverless vehicles) have always been a centerpiece of Waymo’s plans. However, many AV developers pivoted to logistics and delivery because it was viewed as the better nearer-term economic bet. Even Waymo got into the action and ramped up its delivery and trucking development.

Now the company is doubling down on ride-hailing.

“Given the tremendous momentum and substantial commercial opportunity we’re seeing on the ride-hailing front, we’ve made the decision to focus our efforts and investment on ride-hailing. We’re iterating more quickly than ever on our technology by pushing forward state of the art AI/ML, and seeing significant business growth and rider demand in San Francisco, Phoenix, and Los Angeles,” the blog from co-CEOs Dmitri Dolgov and Tekedra Mawakana reads.

As a result, Waymo will “push back the timeline” on its commercial and operational efforts on trucking, as well as most of the technical development on that business unit, Dolgov and Mawakana wrote. While Waymo insists it still intends to apply its autonomous vehicle system to trucking, it didn’t provide further details on when it might renew the program or launch a commercial business.

The vast majority of employees on Waymo’s trucking team have taken other roles within the company. A few number of individuals will be affected by the change but will be helping with the wind down of the program. Waymo did not provide further details on exactly how many people may be impacted.

Despite this shift, Waymo says its partnership with Daimler Truck North America to develop an autonomous truck platform will remain intact, albeit at a slower pace. Waymo said it will follow through with the investments it’s made into its partnership with Daimler Truck North America, specifically the development of a redundant chassis needed to safely deploy autonomous trucking. Waymo will also continue limited testing of trucks.

Boris Sofman, the co-founder and former CEO of defunct robotics startup Anki who, along with a dozen other robotics experts, joined Waymo in 2019 to lead engineering in the autonomous trucking division, is staying on. Sofman, along with much of the trucking team, is already focused on applying its AV system to general freeway capabilities — an area that Waymo intends to apply to ride-hailing and other applications.

Other partnerships related to the trucking program have ended, including ones with UPS and J.B. Hunt. The company is weighing options on what it will do with a dedicated nine-acre trucking hub it built in 2021 in Dallas.

Waymo’s trucking roots

In 2017, Waymo quietly began testing its AV tech in trucks in Arizona and California. A year later, Waymo made its trucking ambitions a bit more public and launched a pilot in Atlanta using trucks outfitted with its self-driving system to carry freight bound for Google data centers.

The trucking program accelerated in 2019 with a return to Arizona and eventually an expansion into Texas. A month later, Sofman and his team from Anki joined Waymo to focus on trucking.

Waymo’s efforts kicked into a higher gear by spring 2020 following its first external raise of $2.25 billion in a fundraising round led by Silver Lake, Canada Pension Plan Investment Board and Mubadala Investment Company. That round, which eventually grew to $3.2 billion, coincided with the launch of Waymo Via, the company’s logistics business unit that was created to focus on delivering goods using self-driving trucks and other autonomous vehicles such as vans.

Waymo Via quickly scored a number of partnerships, from Uber Freight and UPS to J.B. Hunt and Ryder.

But even as Waymo formed partnerships and launched AV truck pilots, the company’s most public efforts were on the ride-hailing front. Waymo currently operates a commercial ride-hailing service known as Waymo One in Phoenix and its many suburbs, including Scottsdale and Tempe. That service area, which once was limited to portions of a few suburbs, has continued to expand and in May 2023 doubled in size.

Waymo also continues to operate and scale in San Francisco as well. Those rides are still free because the company is still waiting for a final permit from the California Public Utilities Commission that will allow it to charge passengers.

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