Uber's Self-Driving Trucks Begin Freight Deliveries Across Arizona

Author: Eric Walz   

Near the Arizona-California border, a steady convoy of semi trucks passes through the Topok Port of Entry weigh station, ready to haul their loads across the wide-open, desert landscape of rural Arizona.

The Topok Port of Entry is well-known to long haul truckers, and now it is getting attention from an unlikely place—the tech world. The Topok Port of Entry transfer station is one of the places where ride-hailing giant Uber's self-driving trucks will stop at to pickup and drop off freight.

Uber said on Tuesday that its testing stage in Arizona is now over and its autonomous truck fleet will begin to move freight across the state for multiple customers.

How Uber's Self-Driving Deliveries Operate

A regular semi truck with a human driver will load up its trailer at a warehouse or other loading area and drive to a transfer station, such as Topok. From there, the freight gets transferred to one of Uber's self-driving semi trucks, which will haul the load long-distances across the state to another transfer station. At the second transfer station, a regular truck with a human driver will manually take over again and drive the loaded trailer to its final destination in an urban area. This is often referred to in the shipping industry as ‘last mile delivery'.

"We've been really hard at work the past several months improving the technology," Alden Woodrow, Uber's self-driving truck product lead, said in a press call. "We're building something that solves problems in the industry— and also makes truck drivers' lives easier and better."

Uber is mostly known for its ride-hailing service, which matches passengers with drivers through a smartphone app. But over the last three years, with the help of the robotics team at Carnegie Mellon University, Uber ventured into autonomous vehicles. Uber hired dozens of researchers from Carnegie Mellon to jumpstart its autonomous driving project. Uber is now is testing its self-driving cars and trucks in Pittsburgh, Arizona and California.

For its commercial launch of self-driving trucks, Woodrow said Uber has been working closely with regulators and law enforcement. Initially the semis will be just in Arizona, but Uber is hoping to expand to other states.

Uber plans to eventually have several transfer hubs around the country, which will operate like the Topok Port of Entry—connecting autonomous long-haul routes with human drivers specializing in short hauls. Self-driving trucks are not quite ready for urban areas. Which is why human drivers are doing the urban hauls, while self-driving trucks are still learning to navigate complex urban environments with crowded streets.

"Because we are still in research and development mode, the capabilities are changing all the time," Woodrow said. "In general, the trucks are pretty capable of driving on the highway, and that's what we're designing them for."

Uber always has a safety operator who's a licensed truck driver at the wheel of the self-driving trucks, Woodrow said. These drivers are also trained in controlling autonomous vehicles. Certain situations, such as construction zones or accidents, can present challenges for the trucks, and a human driver may need to take over.

"We want to make sure our trucks can operate safely in those types of circumstances," Woodrow said, and "be able to navigate the dynamics of the interstate."

Uber Freight App


Along with building self-driving trucks, Uber has created an app platform called Uber Freight last year. The app works similar to the ride-hailing app, except it allows trucking companies and drivers to connect directly with shippers looking to move their goods. This app is already being used in the trucking industry around the U.S., and Uber's autonomous semis will be available on this platform.

"The trucking industry is very large and very sophisticated," Woodrow said. "Generally our goal is to partner with companies in the industry."

Eric Walz
Originally from New Jersey, Eric is an automotive and technology reporter specializing in the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley. Eric has over fifteen years of automotive experience and a B.A. in computer science. These skills, combined with technical writing and news reporting, allows him to fully understand and identify new and innovative technologies in the automotive industry and beyond. He has worked on self-driving cars and as a technical writer, helping people to understand and work with technology. Outside of work, Eric likes to travel to new places, play guitar, and explore the outdoors.
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