Daimler’s self-driving efforts range from the Mercedes-Benz S-Class car, pictured, to heavy-duty commercial vehicles © Michaela Handrek-Rehle/Bloomberg

Waymo is partnering commercial vehicle group Daimler Trucks to power big-rig lorries, as Alphabet’s driverless technology unit moves its technology beyond carrying passengers to hauling freight.

John Krafcik, Waymo’s chief executive, described its first partnership in the trucking sector as an “epic moment”, with its technology being aimed at unlocking “a full suite of driving capabilities, not just highway driving but full hub to hub capability, including the ability to navigate very complicated city environments”.

The two companies said they would work together to build an autonomous version of Daimler’s Freightliner Cascadia, a Class 8 truck currently equipped with driver-assist technology. They plan to make it available to US customers “in the coming years”.

The truck would be level 4 autonomous, meaning it could drive itself without human oversight, but only in predefined areas.

The partnership marks a significant milestone for Waymo, which began life in 2009 as Google’s self-driving car project and is now valued at more than $30bn. Waymo’s focus has been on robotaxis, but it launched a trucking unit in 2017 and branded it Waymo Via earlier this year.

Daimler Trucks is the world’s largest maker of commercial vehicles. The trucking arm of the Mercedes-Benz owner sells half a million units a year, earning $40bn in revenue in 2019.

The partnership is a little unexpected, with Daimler already having purchased a majority stake in the US driverless start-up Torc Robotics in early 2019. 

Martin Daum, chief executive, clarified that Daimler would be following a “dual strategy approach” to offer its customers different choices. It was unclear, however, how deep the partnership with Waymo would go and whether it would create friction with its existing road map for autonomy.

The Cascadia is set to be equipped with the Waymo Driver — a combination of vision sensors, software and computer systems, according to a press release. However, on a call with journalists, Mr Daum said: “We are partnering with Waymo on the chassis part, we are not partnering with Waymo on the software part.” 

A focus on the chassis is meant to send a signal to automotive suppliers to begin building capacity for all the necessary parts required at scale — a development that should speed up production.

“Never underestimate the difficulties we have on that piece of hardware,” Mr Daum said. “Ultimately, that has to perform at a 100 per cent rate, without any fault.”

Mr Krafcik, who a year ago called autonomous trucks “a pressing need” that could “catch on faster” than driverless cars, said he expected Waymo to be able to scale technology it has already built. “The level of invention required from our side is really quite low,” he said. 

Earlier this month, the group’s ride-hailing division, Waymo One, made its fully driverless service open to members of the public in Phoenix, Arizona — a first for the industry.

That announcement followed two years of testing with select passengers, and it remains unclear how quickly it could deploy such operations in the 25 other American cities where it is test-driving with back-up drivers behind the wheel.

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