Waymo plans to launch a new fleet of autonomous trucks next week in Atlanta. The big rigs will deliver cargo to Google’s data centers. (Courtesy of Waymo)

The race to control the future of self-driving trucking just got even more competitive.

Beginning next week, Waymo — formerly known as Google’s self-driving car project — will roll out a pilot program in Atlanta where the company’s technology will power Peterbilt Class 8 trucks to carry cargo bound for Google’s data centers, the company announced Friday.

The company’s engineers have been testing self-driving trucks in California and Arizona, the same state where a fleet of 600 autonomous Waymo taxis has been on the roads without a human driver since November, the company said in a blog post.

“Our software is learning to drive big rigs in much the same way a human driver would after years of driving passenger cars,” Waymo said in the post. “The principles are the same, but things like braking, turning, and blind spots are different with a fully-loaded truck and trailer.”

The company said its self-driving trucks rely on the same sensors as its self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans. Unlike the minivans, Waymo said its trucks will have highly trained drivers in the cabs to monitor systems and take control if needed.

Waymo’s news is the latest in a series of recent announcements that reveal the increasing speed at which self-driving vehicles — including cars, taxis and trucks — are appearing on American roads.

This week Uber revealed the company has begun transporting freight across Arizona using automated big rigs. A Florida start-up called Starsky Robotics intends to make driverless deliveries in the company’s trucks by the end of 2018, according to Wired.

Not to be outshone, a start-up called Embark recently drove an automated truck across the country without a driver, completing a 2,400-mile journey from California to Florida.

Though critics worry autonomous transportation will displace jobs, transportation companies point to a trucking labor shortage over the past decade as evidence the high-tech big rigs are a necessity. That shortage hit roughly 45,000 truck drivers in 2015 and was expected to climb higher in 2017, according to a recent report published by the American Trucking Association.

“There are many reasons for the current driver shortage, but one of the largest factors is the relatively high average age of the existing workforce. According to surveys by ATA, the average driver age in the for-hire over-the-road truckload industry is 49.”

The changes are being driven by a desire for greater safety. More than 4,000 people were killed, and 116,000 others injured in accidents involving large trucks in 2015, the most recent year statistics were available, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

“Trucking is a vital part of the American economy,” Waymo’s statement said, “and we believe self-driving technology has the potential to make this sector safer and even stronger.”

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