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June 10, 2021 9:00 AM, EDT

J.B. Hunt, Waymo Partner to Test Self-Driving Trucks in Texas

J.B. HuntLeft: Waymo technology on a Class 8 truck. (Waymo) Right: A J.B. Hunt truck. (J.B. Hunt Transport Services)

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J.B. Hunt Transport Services has partnered with autonomous vehicle developer Waymo to move freight with self-driving trucks in Texas.

Through this limited pilot program, Waymo’s autonomous trucking unit, Waymo Via, will transport loads along Interstate 45 between facilities in Houston and Fort Worth for an unidentified J.B. Hunt customer, the companies announced June 10.

Waymo’s Class 8 trucks will drive autonomously on the interstate during the freight runs, but will continue to have two Waymo specialists on board — a commercially licensed driver and a software technician — to monitor the self-driving system.

“This will be one of the first opportunities for J.B. Hunt to receive data and feedback on customer freight moved with a Class 8 tractor operating at this level of autonomy,” Craig Harper, J.B. Hunt chief sustainability officer and executive vice president, said in the announcement. “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 to ensure that their implementation will improve efficiency while enhancing safety.”

J.B. Hunt, an intermodal service provider and truckload carrier based in Lowell, Ark., ranks No. 4 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest for-hire carriers in North America.

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In addition to the trial freight runs in Texas, J.B. Hunt and Waymo have collaborated on operational and market studies to explore topics such as best maintenance practices, future facility layouts and determining which lanes are best suited for autonomous driving, the companies said in the joint announcement.

“Our teams share an innovative and safety-first mindset as well as a deep appreciation for the potential benefits of autonomous driving technology in trucking,” said Charlie Jatt, head of commercialization for trucking at Waymo.

Waymo is actively testing and developing technology designed to enable SAE Level 4 automated driving, meaning the truck would be able to drive itself with no human input or backup under certain conditions.

The company, which got its start in 2009 as the Google Self-Driving Car Project, is a subsidiary of Google parent company Alphabet Inc. It began its self-driving truck program in 2017.

In 2020, Waymo partnered with Daimler Trucks to co-develop a Freightliner Cascadia model outfitted with the Waymo Driver and the sensors and components necessary to support fully autonomous driving.

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Other developers of highly automated driving technology for commercial trucks include Aurora Innovation, TuSimple, Embark, Plus, Locomation, Einride, Torc Robotics, Kodiak Robotics, Ike and Outrider. Volvo Trucks is also testing autonomous freight systems.

For now, all of the tests use humans to monitor autonomous truck operations.

The trucking industry is poised to start fully autonomous tests sometime in the second half of next year, said Sam Abuelsamid, principal analyst at Guidehouse Insights. He expects the tests to start with minimal surface street driving and start and end points close to highway entrances and exits.

“It will be either in Texas or somewhere else in the Southwest where the weather is reliable, the roads tend to be straight and easy, and it is more rural with not a huge amount of traffic. That’s just less complex for the driving system,” Abuelsamid said.

The tests with Hunt will help Waymo figure out how autonomous freight transport affects other aspects of trucking, Jatt noted.

“These trial runs offer another way to achieve these learnings and will help us define how we can continue working together long-term to advance the trucking industry through the deployment of autonomous driving technology,” Jatt said.

Additional reporting by Contributing Writer Jerry Hirsch.

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