There’s a saying that “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. Our first step on the road to scaling the commercial Autonomous Freight Network began on December 22nd, 2021 followed by several more in the proceeding weeks. During this time, we became the first and only company to autonomously operate heavy-duty trucks on open public roads with no humans in the vehicle, no remote control, and no human intervention of any kind. We call these, “Driver Out” runs.
The trucks operated within a defined route and conditions called the Operational Design Domain (ODD). The ODD covered an 80-mile “hub-to-hub” stretch in Arizona between a rail yard in Tucson and a high-volume distribution center outside of Phoenix. The operation included surface streets and highways with a maximum speed of 65 miles-per-hour and evening launch times starting at 8pm.
Because these were the first runs of their kind and to put people at ease, we took some additional safety precautions beyond our already published Driver Out Safety Framework. We chose to support the autonomous trucks with a survey vehicle and oversight vehicle. The survey vehicle traveled 5 to 6 miles ahead of the Driver Out truck and monitored for rare situations that could unexpectedly bring the truck outside of the ODD, for example, a sudden highway closure. The oversight vehicle trailed the Driver Out truck to visually monitor its operation. If the Driver Out truck encounters an outside of ODD scenario, it enters what is called a Minimum Risk Condition (MRC) where it safely ends the mission. In the event of an MRC, the oversight vehicle following the autonomous truck would quickly arrive to assist. State and local authorities also requested to trail the autonomous trucks by about a half mile to observe operations.
Our full-scale Autonomous Freight Network will operate in real-world conditions, and with this in mind, these initial Driver Out runs needed to be completely real also and not manipulated or contrived. For this reason, we conducted the runs along the route “as-is”, without any artificial traffic control, road closures, trimming of trees or foliage, cleaning or clearing of signs, removal of road debris, and with no remote control of the truck or other interventions.
The setup we chose for the initial Driver Out runs were the safest, most realistic, and most useful for advancing our technology development. They significantly advanced our progress toward scaling the Autonomous Freight Network. Over the coming weeks we’ll share more details about the runs including examples of our virtual driver’s features and capabilities, unexpected scenarios we designed for, and our plans to continue to scale Driver Out operations.