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Uber Freight Is the First Step to Automating Away Truckers

First: matching haulers to jobs. Next: leveraging that network to build out fleets of autonomous 18-wheelers.

Want to move truckloads of stuff across the country? There’s now an app for that.

Uber has finally unveiled the much-anticipated freight-hauling counterpart to its regular ride-hailing service. Uber Freight, as it’s known, will pair commercial shippers with independent truck drivers looking for a job, just like riders find drivers in so many cities.

Much like the taxi service before it, Uber’s promise here is to remove friction from the current system. In a blog post announcing the new service, the firm bleats about how drivers will be able to pick up jobs with a simple search and some button presses, rather than spending “several hours and multiple phone calls” trying to achieve the same end in the past.

Uber will also determine fees—and, yes, it will use surge charging—which in the past truckers have usually done for themselves. Drivers will no doubt be happy to hear that they’ll get paid faster this way—within seven days, rather than 30 or more, which is common right now. But it remains to be seen if drivers will be satisfied with the pay they manage to take home when working for Uber. If the company's track record in the ride-hailing business is anything to go by, tensions may arise.

But there is a larger narrative at play here. Uber’s move into shipping came after it acquired the autonomous truck company Otto last summer. And that sector is maturing quickly: while the trucks make use of similar technology to that being used by the autonomous cars being developed by Uber and Waymo for robotic taxi fleets, they also only have to contended with highways. That's far easier than inner-city driving.  

Otto even made its first delivery—a 120-mile dash along Interstate 25 carrying 2,000 cases of Budweiser—last year. In fact, we made self-driving trucks one of our 10 breakthrough technologies of 2017, because they look set to beat autonomous cars to the asphalt in large numbers.

For now, Uber Freight will be busy coördinating swift, competitively priced deliveries in an attempt to make itself as invaluable to people that shift freight as regular Uber is to city-dwellers. Once the trucking network is established and Otto's robots are ready, who will notice when Uber simply waves goodbye to the human drivers behind its 18-wheelers? Apart from the estimated 1.7 million truckers working U.S. roads, that is.

(Read more: Uber Freight, “10 Breakthrough Technologies: Self-Driving Trucks,” “Otto’s Self-Driving 18-Wheeler Has Made Its First Delivery,” “Uber Freight Will Bring Surge Pricing to the Trucking Business”)

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