Warehousing and distribution giant Prologis sees autonomous freight as the future of logistics.
The San Francisco-based company is in the early stages of organizing its business to serve shippers and truckers looking to add electric and autonomous big rigs to their fleet, said Henrik Holland, Prologis’ global head of mobility.
Holland outlined the company’s plans during a discussion on new business models Automotive news Congress in Los Angeles last week.
Prologis is partnering with Alphabet’s self-driving technology subsidiary Waymo to build highway-adjacent hubs for autonomous trucking. The first center opened outside of Dallas in July 2022.
Prologis and Waymo have spent $10 million to build a 9-acre autonomous cargo center in Lancaster, Texas. The enterprise has 100 employees, 10 truck maintenance points, six electric vehicle charging stations and a diesel fuel filling station. Waymo operates 20 autonomous trucks from the facility, although they work with safety drivers in the cab.
Eventually, Waymo will involve human drivers for most of the route. In this scenario, human drivers will transport goods through traffic to the hubs. It will be converted into an autonomous truck that will hop on the highway and travel hundreds of miles to another hub. There, a person takes control and transports the cargo to its final destination.
Other companies are looking at the same business model.
Embark, one of the first software companies for self-driving trucks working with real estate companies build a national network of hubs for autonomous cargo transportation.
“I think a lot of people have realized that logistics, trucking and simple use cases are probably the ways that we will finally break into commercialization in a significant way,” said Sam Abidi, Embark’s chief commercial officer.
While self-driving passenger cars have initially been the focus of the auto industry, automating heavy trucks will prove to be an easier task, said Suman Narayanan, director of engineering for Daimler Truck’s North American autonomous technology division.
While still challenging, he said the highway environment is more manageable for autonomous vehicles to navigate. On highways, vehicles travel in the same direction at the same speeds, and cross traffic, pedestrians, and other random obstacles are rare.
When trucks move cargo, it’s mostly over stable infrastructure compared to roads in cities and other areas where the infrastructure isn’t as tightly controlled as U.S. interstate highways, Narayanan noted.
“These are long routes and the mission is planned before the cargo truck leaves,” Narayanan added. “So there are some elements of trucking that are extremely conducive to automation, but still have uncompromising safety and the desire to have the highest efficiency.”