Paccar, the maker of Kenworth and Peterbilt semi-trucks, is partnering with Silicon Valley startup Aurora Innovations to develop and commercialize the technology needed for big rigs to safely haul freight on highways in autonomous mode as logistics becomes a top early application for self-driving systems.
The agreement is a global one and the companies will initially focus on testing Aurora’s software, sensors and computing system on Peterbilt Model 579 and Kenworth 680 trucks, says Sterling Anderson, Aurora’s cofounder and chief product officer. Along with on-highway evaluation, the autonomous system will also be tested at Bellevue, Washington-based Paccar’s in-house R&D center. The companies aim to have production versions in operation within a few years.
“The primary use case and a significant chunk of this market lies in the middle-mile and long haul with class-8 (semis) and that’s where we’ll start,” Anderson tells Forbes. Although Aurora continues to develop its driving system for passenger vehicles, “there’s a real opportunity and strategic advantage that we have in deploying in trucking first.”
Growing demand for trucking services across the U.S., a tight supply of human drivers and an operating environment that’s relatively easier to master–compared with urban settings–has made robotic trucking particularly attractive to autonomous tech companies. Aurora joins Alphabet’s Waymo and startup TuSimple in forming strategic partnerships with truck-building giants. Waymo and Daimler formed a strategic alliance last October, that will initially focus on its Freightliner truck brand, while San Diego-based TuSimple is working with Navistar and other heavy-duty brands owned by Volkswagen’s Traton Group.
Anderson declined to say if the partnership includes investment by Paccar.
“This strategic partnership complements Paccar’s best-in-class commercial vehicle quality, technology and innovation,” Preston Feight, the truckmaker’s CEO, said in a statement.
The news is Aurora’s first major announcement since its acquisition of Uber’s self-driving tech unit in December, in an all-stock transaction. Uber also invested $400 million in Aurora at the time of that deal, boosting the self-driving companies fundraising to more than $1 billion. Along with Anderson, who led the development of Tesla’s Autopilot system, Aurora’s cofounders include ex-Google self-driving car project chief Chris Urmson and Drew Bagnell, a Carnegie Mellon University scientist and former Uber executive.
“We’ve been impressed with Paccar’s product engineering, manufacturing capabilities, and commitment to enhancing its customers’ operational safety and efficiency,” Urmson said. “This partnership brings us one step closer to unlocking the autonomous freight market and delivering goods to those who need them.”
Aurora announced its focus on trucking and logistics in 2020, with plans to begin testing vehicles on Texas highways. Waymo and TuSimple also have truck depots in the state, a top U.S. market for on-road freight.
Separately, Aurora completed its acquisition of the former Uber unit on Tuesday, boosting its employee tally to more than 1,600 people. “Moving with speed and clarity, we closed the acquisition of ATG in under six weeks and we’re excited to welcome all our new employees to Aurora this week,” Urmson tweeted.