Uber and its Technology Partner Aurora to Expand Autonomous Trucking Pilot in Texas

Uber and its Technology Partner Aurora to Expand Autonomous Trucking Pilot in Texas

Author: Eric Walz   

Uber Freight, which is the logistics business of ride hailing company Uber Technologies Inc., is expanding its autonomous freight delivery pilot in Texas ahead of the holiday rush. Uber has been testing its autonomous trucking technology in the state with its technology partner Aurora Innovation Inc.

The two companies are expanding their autonomous pilot with a new commercial freight lane between Fort Worth and El Paso. The 600-mile route across Texas launched in October and is supporting Uber Freight customers as they prepare for the busy 2022 holiday shipping season where an estimated 1 billion packages will be shipped within the U.S. alone. 

Aurora's autonomous logistics service, Aurora Horizon, is making weekly runs hauling cargo for Uber Freight customers. Aurora is using Peterbilt Model 579 Class-8 trucks outfitted with sensors and other hardware to operate autonomously on highways. Aurora refers to its self-driving technology stack as the Aurora Driver.

"The holidays are a challenging time for the logistics industry. We're crafting Aurora Horizon to help carriers of all sizes alleviate some of the supply chain pressures that typically accompany them," said Sterling Anderson, Chief Product Officer and Co-Founder of Aurora. "Deploying our technology with the Uber Freight team over this 600-mile trip at the peak of the season is an outgrowth of our mutual commitment to ensure that Aurora Horizon can enable carriers of all sizes to safely and efficiently haul freight 24/7/365 on the Uber Freight network."

One of Uber Freight's customers in Texas is Veritiv Corp, a distributor of customized packaging solutions in North America. Veritiv is using Aurora's self-driving trucks to transport goods to its retail, education, and healthcare customers. The packages travel over 600 miles between Aurora's terminals in Fort Worth and El Paso. The autonomous portion of the trip is done on stretches of highway between the two cities.

The first and lastlegs of the trips are completed using human drivers across western Texas and into New Mexico."This autonomous vehicle pilot aligns with ourstrategy to assess new technologies to determine the best fit for our business and our customers. We are proud to be at the forefront of testing this technology," said Mike Walkenhorst, Senior Vice President of Global Operations and Developing Businesses for Veritiv.

Pittsburgh-based Aurora is one of the many autonomous driving technology startups racing to commercialize autonomous freight delivery using Class-8 trucks. The company was co-founded in 2017 by Sterling Anderson, Chris Urmson and Drew Bagnell. All three are industry veterans in the field of autonomous driving. 

Before co-founding Aurora, Urmson led Google's self-driving car project, which has now become its autonomous driving unit Waymo. Anderson is a former Tesla employee and led the teams that developed Tesla's first version of Autopilot.

Bagnell spent two decades in the field as an associate professor in the renowned robotics department of Carnegie Mellon University. 

Bagnell was recruited by Uber's Advanced Technology Group (Uber ATG) in 2016 along with dozens of other scientists and researchers from the school's world renowned robotics program as the ride-hailing giant tried to jumpstart its work on self-driving vehicles with the goal of adding self-driving vehicles to Uber's ride-hailing platform. While at Uber, Bagnell was instrumental in developing the perception systems for the ride-hailing company's self-driving test vehicles. 

However Uber ATG faced engineering challenges and decided to abandon its own work on the technology. In Dec 2020, Aurora purchased the assets of Uber ATG for $4 billion. As part of the deal, Uber invested $400 million in Aurora and transferred its entire 1,200-employee team to Aurora. 

Uber still retained a 26% stake in Aurora and Uber's Chief Executive Dara Khosrowshahi was awarded a seat on Aurora's board. 

Aurora plans to work with additional carriers on the Uber Freight network and incorporate learnings from this pilot in Texas into its freight subscription service Aurora Horizon for carriers and private fleets. 

Many stakeholders believe that self-driving trucks will be deployed on public roads before passenger vehicles. From an engineering standpoint, operating a truck autonomously on long stretches of highways is less challenging than developing a self-driving vehicle that can operate safely in a busy urban environment around pedestrians and other vehicles.

In addition, converting Class-8 trucks into autonomous freight carriers helps address the chronic shortage of truck drivers in the industry. Self-driving trucks can also operate 24 hours a day as opposed to human drivers that are limited to driving just 11 hours per day in the U.S.

Eric Walz
Eric Walz
Originally hailing from New Jersey, Eric is a automotive & technology reporter covering the high-tech industry here in Silicon Valley. He has over 15 years of automotive experience and a bachelors degree 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 auto industry and beyond. He has worked at Uber on self-driving cars and as a technical writer, helping people to understand and work with technology.
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