Uber may have sold its self-driving truck division to Aurora, but that hasn’t deterred it from a belief that autonomous trucks and Uber Freight’s digital freight network technology connecting shippers and trucks are a good match. The hub-to-hub model represents a practical starting point for the accelerated deployment of autonomous trucks, according to Uber Freight.
“Uber Freight envisions a future where autonomous trucks and human drivers operate alongside one another in a hybrid network to ease the burden of increased freight demand, enhance truck drivers’ quality of life, and create more value for everyone in the supply chain,” it explained in a blog post announcing its road map and research.
Uber Freight is building on what it’s learned through its strategic partnership with Waymo and a multiphase pilot program with Aurora. In a new whitepaper, it said, for the foreseeable future, most autonomous trucks will operate under a hub-to-hub model, where human drivers handle the trip ends, which involve complex urban streets, and autonomous trucks will service the middle on highways.
Under this model, a driver picks up a preloaded trailer from the shipper’s facility and delivers it to a transfer hub located close to the highway — what Uber is calling “the first mile.” The trailer then gets hooked up to an autonomous tractor, which drives on the highway to another transfer hub near the receiver’s facility — a step it calls the middle mile. At the second transfer hub, another driver picks up the trailer and delivers it to its final destination (the last mile.)
Such a hub-to-hub model would depend on drop-and-hook at the transfer hubs, such as Uber’s Powerloop.
Hub-to-Hub Autonomous is a ‘Sizable Opportunity’
Using a nationwide freight model, Uber said the hub-to-hub model presents a sizable opportunity, with an immediate addressable market of 25 billion miles of long-distance dry van freight on the interstate system.
- Feasibility improves with longer hauls, where the fraction of cost associated with the first and last miles is smaller.
- Deployment will expand incrementally along strategic corridors, starting with states where weather and regulations are favorable.
- By analyzing historical carrier pricing data, Uber said, it found this model is feasible to all stakeholders on 80% of lanes if AV carriers can achieve a middle-mile cost of $1 per mile, and on 40% of lanes with a middle-mile cost of $2 per mile.
According to a 2022 survey of Uber Freight and Transplace’s biggest shippers, the majority of shippers are either extremely likely (52%) or somewhat likely (24%) to consider an autonomous freight solution for the future. “While this survey was based on a small sample, it clearly shows that shippers are more likely to adopt autonomous technology compared with the general population,” Uber said in its white paper.
How Would Hub-to-Hub Autonomous Trucks Benefit Drivers?
Uber Freight also said its research indicates that autonomous trucks within a hybrid network will fill trucking employment gaps, rather than replace human drivers. They will provide capacity where it is needed most: in long-distance trucking.
- Using a nationwide model of interstate freight movements, Uber Freight estimates that 180,000 drivers will be needed to cover 18 billion miles of dry van freight by 2050.
- Autonomous trucks on the long-haul middle mile would enable humans to shift to local hauls, boosting demand for skilled drivers in the local sector. Drivers would have more control over their work and be able to stay closer to home.
More About the Uber-Waymo Partnership
As part of the long-term agreement, Waymo Via intends to reserve billions of miles of its goods-only capacity for the Uber Freight network.
For shippers, the scale and depth of this partnership means that Uber Freight, alongside Transplace, will be able to integrate autonomy seamlessly into shipper networks and advise on how best to adjust their supply-chain strategies for a hybrid network future, according to Uber Freight.
Uber Freight said it can combine shipments from its $17 billion of freight under management to maximize utilization of autonomous and human-driven trucks, and continuously optimize routes once the technology is deployed.
“Uber Freight’s extensive, efficient, and reliable digital network is essential to making autonomous trucks a reality,” said Lior Ron, head of Uber Freight, when announcing the Waymo partnership earlier this summer. “We are uniquely positioned to be the preferred network for autonomous trucks, with the scale and the marketplace expertise to deploy autonomous trucks in a way that benefits the entire industry.”