Uber trucks in Arizona? Yeah, and they're self-driving, too

Coming out of test mode, the company's autonomous big rigs are now moving freight for customers.

Dara Kerr Former senior reporter
Dara Kerr was a senior reporter for CNET covering the on-demand economy and tech culture. She grew up in Colorado, went to school in New York City and can never remember how to pronounce gif.
Dara Kerr
4 min read

Customers can now ship freight in Arizona using Uber's self-driving trucks.

Uber/Gregory Murphy

Near the Mojave Desert, on the Arizona-California border, freight trucks drive in and out of the Topock weigh station. If you speed past the dusty roadside stop you likely wouldn't notice anything remarkable, but something out of the ordinary is happening there.

The Topock port of entry is one of the places where Uber has been testing transfers to and from its self-driving big rigs.

The company said Tuesday that its testing stage in Arizona is now over and that it's beginning to use its autonomous truck fleet to move freight across the state for multiple customers -- something it's been scaling up over the past few months.

Watch this: Uber's self-driving trucks hit the road in Arizona

It works this way: A regular semi truck with a human driver loads its trailer at a city port or other loading area and drives to a transfer station, like Topock. There, the freight gets transferred to one of Uber's self-driving trucks, which then drives it long-distance across the state to another transfer station. A regular big rig with a human driver takes over again and drives the trailer the final short haul into an urban area.

"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, it's ventured into driverless vehicles. Uber is now testing cars and trucks in Pennsylvania, California and Arizona.

While its autonomous vehicle program has gotten Uber into trouble more than once -- like when it rolled out self-driving cars to passengers in San Francisco without a license and when it was sued by Google for allegedly stealing self-driving car technology -- the company says it's now looking to work with regulators and do things by the book.

Uber self-driving tractor-trailer truck

Uber will use its driverless trucks for statewide hauls in Arizona.

Uber/Gregory Murphy

Much of that initiative comes from Uber's new CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, who took over the company in August after the ouster of former CEO and co-founder Travis Kalanick. Khosrowshahi has emphasized that he will be an empathetic leader who competes fairly.

For its commercial launch of self-driving trucks, Woodrow said Uber has been working closely with regulators and law enforcement.

"Arizona has become a hub for testing of self-driving vehicles," said Gov. Doug Ducey in an email. "And we welcome continued innovation and testing of new technologies."

Uber isn't the only company working on autonomous big rigs. Along with several startups, Tesla has introduced its Tesla Semi initiative with self-driving mode, and Waymo, Google's self-driving car spinoff, has said it too is thinking of getting into 18-wheelers. Trucking is a major industry in the US that moves roughly 70 percent of all domestic freight and makes more than $700 billion in revenue per year, according to the American Trucking Association.

While Uber's self-driving trucks are only carrying cargo in Arizona for now, the company is hoping to expand to other states.

Uber's idea is to have several transfer hubs around the county, which would work similarly to the Topock weigh station -- connecting automated long-haul routes with drivers specializing in local hauls. The reason human drivers are doing the urban hauls is that self-driving trucks are still learning to navigate cities' crowded and complex 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."

Along with building self-driving trucks, Uber has created an app platform called Uber Freight. Similar to the ride-hailing app, it lets trucking companies and their drivers connect with shippers. This app is already being used in the trucking industry around the US, 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."

First published March 6, 7 a.m. PT.
Update, 3:34 p.m. PT: Adds comment from Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and additional background information. 

Correction, 4:33 p.m. PT: The name of one of the places Uber is testing its self-driving trucks was initially misspelled. It's Topock. 

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