A new partnership between Bellevue-based Paccar and a Silicon Valley autonomous-driving startup represents a major bet that the future of self-driving vehicles will start with trucks, not cars.
Announced Tuesday, the partnership between Paccar, maker of Kenworth and Peterbilt trucks, and Mountain View, Calif.-based Aurora Innovation, a pioneer in self-driving technology, aims to bring a self-driving truck to market “in the next several years,” said Ken Hastings, a Paccar spokesperson. The companies offered no specific timeline for that goal, and Paccar isn’t making an investment in Aurora, Hastings said.
The deal reflects an emerging consensus that long-haul trucks — rather than passenger cars — may be the best pathway to commercializing self-driving vehicles. That’s because long-haul trucks typically travel over set routes, making them easier to automate, and because trucking companies are eager to invest in innovation that can lower costs and improve safety. Other truck makers, including Daimler and Navistar International, have agreed to similar alliances, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Paccar has experimented with self-driving technology for four years, but the Aurora alliance intensifies that pursuit, Hastings said. Thus far, Paccar’s self-driving initiatives have involved adding a self-driving system to an existing, human-driven vehicle — with the human serving as the backup, Hastings said.
The goal of the Paccar-Aurora alliance is a truck with two separate self-driving systems, each of which can autonomously operate the steering, brakes and other parts of the truck, and can serve as a backup; that redundancy removes the need for a human backup, Hastings said.
“All of those demonstration [trucks] have backup drivers,” Hastings said. But to truly commercialize the technology, “there’s no driver,” he added. “That’s the goal.”
Aurora recently acquired the self-driving division of Uber Technologies. Chris Urmson, Aurora’s CEO, ran the autonomous team at Google, which eventually became self-driving pioneer Waymo.
Aurora now has about 1,600 employees, including hundreds based in Pittsburgh, near Carnegie Mellon University, one of the leading lights in robotics.
Paccar and Aurora began discussion around autonomous technologies several years ago, when Aurora was still mainly focused on passenger vehicles, Hastings said. But around a year ago, Aurora began to “really focus on autonomy for trucks,” Hastings said, at which point, “the conversation between the two companies naturally evolved into partnering in the commercialization of trucks.”
Bloomberg News contributed to this report.