It is easy to be distracted by the autonomous car industry, as shiny, self-driving vehicles from Waymo, Tesla, GM and others navigate without (much) human guidance.
However as glitzy as this may be, autonomy is also shaking up the trucking industry in an equally profound way. They might not capture as many headlines, or find themselves the stars of the world's most glamorous motor shows. But they are being worked on by at least seven companies right now — some are decades-old automakers, others are brand new startups.
Uber, however, is not one of them. The ride-share company quit the autonomous truck business in 2018, just two years after it acquired Otto, a driverless truck startup, for $680 million in stock.
Here, GearBrain looks at six autonomous truck companies we think you should know.
The aim of San Francisco-based Embark is to automate the freeway part of a truck's journey. Founded in 2016, Embark lets the system take over, with the driver taking over when the truck exits the freeway, to navigate the more complex roads of towns and cities themselves.
The approach is designed so truck drivers can complete more journeys per day, as they're spending less time doing the actual driving. In 2018, the company operated test vehicles (with humans monitoring from behind the wheel) on the I-10 freeway between El Paso, Texas and Palm Springs, California.
Embark has already used its technology to drive a truck across the U.S., through adverse weather conditions like rain and fog, navigating highway transfers without human assistance. Embark's employees previously worked at companies like Audi and Apple, and the startup has raised an estimated $47 million, according to data by Crunchbase.
In January 2019, it was reported that Embark has begun working with Amazon, after photos of trucks with both companies' logos appeared on Reddit. Although not speaking about its work with Embark specifically, Amazon said at the time: "We think successful over-the-road autonomy will create safer roadways and a better work environment for drivers on long-haul runs."
Naturally, autonomous trucks make perfect sense for Amazon, which delivers a vast number of parcels globally every day, and counts driver salaries as one of its major cost factors. Driverless trucks (although not commercially available yet) would reduce this wage bill significantly.
Instead of building its own trucks, Embark fits its autonomous technology to semis built by Peterbilt. For now, the technology is able to drive the truck autonomously on the highway, but a human driver is required to join the dots at either end, taking goods to and from distribution centers on road networks which are generally more complex than highways.
The next logical step would be for autonomous trucks to ferry goods up and down highways, parking their trailers in a place where human drivers can pick them up and finish the journey. This would cut the distance driven by humans, allowing them to get on with the more complex (but shorter and quicker) routes the computers cannot yet manage.
Daimler plans to have autonomous Mercedes trucks on the road by 2025Daimler
An automotive veteran and parent of Mercedes-Benz, Daimler has been in the autonomous truck race for longer than most others, first demonstrating a self-driving vehicle back in 2014. Called the Mercedes-Benz Future Truck 2025, the vehicle uses a system called Highway Pilot to navigate highways without human assistance.
So far, Mercedes has concentrated on platooning, where trucks drive themselves closely behind one another, reducing air resistance and lowering their fuel usage by a claimed 10 percent. Each vehicle still has a driver for safety and for taking over when exiting the freeway.
At CES in January 2019, Daimler Trucks announced it would invest more than $570 million into autonomy over the coming years, creating ore than 200 jobs amid a global push to create Level Four driverless systems. Daimler said at the time this technology will "improve safety, boost the performance of logistics and offer a great value proposition to the customers – and thus contribute considerably to a sustainable future of transportation."
Daimler also said it is skipping the contentious Level Three of autonomous technology, where a safety driver must pay attention at all times and take control whenever the system fails. Other automotive companies are taking a similar safety-first move. The company's goal is to offer trucks with "highly automated driving" within a decade.
In what was claimed to be a word-first, Swedish-based Einride kicked off the first truly driverless commercial trucking service on public roads on May 15, 2019.
The electric trucks, built by Einride itself, have no driver's cab or conventional controls, and are monitored by an operator stationed miles away, who can supervise and control up to 10 of the autonomous vehicles at once. They are currently working for DB Schenker, a German logistics company.
Removing the cab reduces road freight operational costs by around 60 percent compared to a conventional, human-driven diesel truck, Einride claims.
Called the T-Pod, the Level Four driverless truck built by Einride weighs 26 tons when fully laden. Although an impressive technological feat, the route they are currently driving on is short — and slow, with a top speed of just 5 km/h (3 mph), a little more than walking pace.
Based in Stockholm, Einride was founded in 2016 and has received a total of $9.1 million in funding to date, according to its Crunchbase profile.
The company is now looking for a manufacturing partner to help it scale up its business, as its focus for now is on improving its autonomous technology and not mass-producing its own trucks.
The trucks will drive along a 22-hour route from Arizona to DallasTuSimple
San Diego-based TuSimple began an autonomous trucking service in partnership with the United States Postal Service on May 21, 2019. The USPS awarded TuSimple, a startup founded in 2015, with a contract to perform five round trips for a two-week period, hauling USPS trailers more than 1,000 miles between distribution centers in Phoenix, Arizona and Dallas, Texas.
The route, which covers the I-10, I-20 and I-30 corridors through Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, is expected to take the trucks 22 hours and will include night driving. Two safety drivers will be onboard each truck throughout the journey, taking it in turns to monitor the autonomous system's performance and take over if necessary.
"It is exciting to think that before many people will ride in a robo-taxi, their mail and packages may be carried in a self-driving truck," said Dr. Xiaodi Hou, the founder, president and chief technology officer of TuSimple. "Performing for the USPS on this pilot in this particular commercial corridor gives us specific use cases to help us validate our system, and expedite the technological development and commercialization progress."
TuSimple is a unicorn of the driverless truck industry, having reached a valuation of $1 billion in February 2019 after completing a $95 million Series D funding round
Google sibling Waymo is applying its autonomous car tech to trucksWaymo
Better known as Google's self-driving car division, Waymo announced in March 2018 it has plans to automate trucks too. That month, the company launched a pilot in Atlanta where Waymo-branded trucks carried freight bound for Google's data centers.
Although Waymo tested its truck-driving system for a year in California and Arizona ahead of the pilot, it still has "highly trained" safety drivers behind the wheel to monitor the technology and take over control if required.
Waymo said in March 2018: "Our software is leaning to drive big rigs in much the same way a human driver would after years of driving passenger cars. The principles are the same, but things like braking, turning, and blind spots are different with a fully-loaded truck and trailer."
Despite fears that autonomous trucks will cause widespread unemployment in the driving community, Waymo says: "Trucking is a vital part of the American economy, and we believe self-driving technology has the potential to make this sector safer and even stronger."
With regard to cost-cutting, Morgan Stanley estimates the US freight transport to be worth $900 billion, and that Waymo's autonomous technology could cut costs by 30-50 percent.
Platooning can help increase safety and efficiencyVolvo
In 2016, Volvo demonstrated how its autonomous trucks platoon to improve both safety and efficiency.
It may not have been the most exciting demo, but when it comes to 70,000-pound trucks barreling down the highway under computer control, boring is exactly what you want.
The demonstration showed how the lead truck controls the accelerator and brakes of the two following trucks, meaning they all speed up and slow down together, thus removing the delays caused by driver reaction time.
Platooning like this also helps remove unnecessary braking and accelerating, and following each other closely lowers wind resistance, which in turn lowers fuel use. Drivers still all look after their own steering, but Volvo says this could also be automated in the future.
Volvo, which has partnered with FedEx, claims that if the computer-controlled trucks follow each other just one second apart, fuel economy can be improved by 10 percent, leading to significant savings for haulage companies who employ such a system.
In November 2018, Volvo Trucks began the world's first commercial driverless truck service albeit not on public roads, like Einride's is). The service uses Volvo trucks to transport limestone from an open pit in Norway to a port three miles away.
The trucks navigate along a preset route and away from public roads, so there is very little chance for something to go wrong.
Caterpillar, the construction equipment company known as CAT, also produces autonomous mining vehicles, including self-driving trucks used to transport raw material out of open mines.
Tesla unveiled its first truck in November 2017 and plans to start delivering the electric vehicles in 2019. Company boss Elon Musk said at the launch that the semis would get Tesla's Autopilot self-driving software as standard.
Like on Tesla cars, Autopilot for trucks will provide a semi-autonomous system where the vehicle's accelerator, brakes and steering are managed by the computer on highways with clear lane markings, but the driver must remain fully alert and with a hand on the wheel at all times.
On top of this, Musk said this version of Autopilot will have truck-specific features like an anti-jackknifing system. The eventual goal is to employ a platooning feature for Tesla trucks to autonomously follow each other and have only the lead truck controlled fully by a human driver.