Somewhat under the radar, Uber Freight, the freight operation of the ubiquitous ride-hailing pioneer, hit the road last week for the start of its autonomous truck journey.
The trip actually began in the Midwest, where a conventional truck with a driver hauled the load to an Uber Freight transfer hub in Sanders, Ariz. There, the trailer was offloaded onto the self-driving rig for a 344-mile ride west to a second transfer hub in Topock, Ariz. The trailer was then transferred to a second conventional truck where a driver—who was waiting after dropping off a separate load earlier—hauled the transferred load to its final destination in southern California.
The movement captured San Francisco-based Uber Freight's near-term vision for its autonomous truck operation: A hybrid of human and technological effort. No one expects a tractor-trailer to fly down the roads any time soon without the presence of a professional truck driver. Indeed, drivers will be called upon to execute more complex, precise actions that automation cannot yet do, such as backing up into truck bays.
In addition, because federal rules need to be written governing the interstate movements of autonomous trucks, driverless trucks will be confined to intrastate hauls. For the foreseeable future, loads must be transferred to a conventional truck for a move across state lines.
Last week's operation went off with relatively little fanfare, atypical for a company whose parent is very much in the news for a number of reasons, not all of them favorable.
Uber Freight's trucks came from its 2016 acquisition of autonomous truck startup Otto, whose name has since disappeared. Sarah Abboud, an Uber Freight spokeswoman, said Uber Freight's current fleet is small, but wouldn't provide numbers. Abboud also did not comment on where the company's autonomous-truck strategy heads from here.
Uber Freight's core business is a digital load-matching service connecting shippers and carriers, ostensibly without the involvement of traditional freight brokers or third-party logistics (3PL) providers. It has also been speculated that Uber Freight's long-term strategy is to build market share through pricing that undercuts traditional brokers, and then funnel freight into its self-driving truck network for deliveries.
Traditional brokers have maintained that experienced support staffs combined with advanced technologies are critical to facilitate transactions and to successfully intervene if a problem arises with a shipment.
You can watch a video of the Uber Freight autonomous move below, along with an animation showing how Uber plans to move freight between self-driving trucks and truck drivers.