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The future of freight: self-driving semis — part 2

03.11.2020 | By Peter Frys | min. read

The evolution of self-driving trucks is raising the stakes in the freight industry. With the potential to decrease traffic accidents, boost productivity, cut costs and increase efficiency, self-driving trucks are sure to propel growth for trucking companies.

Our previous post in this series describes the attributes of automated semi-trucks, provides an overview of their advantages, and predicts how the technology will augment the role of truck drivers. This post will examine the companies that are duking it out on the front lines and the conditions they’ll have to meet in order to gain public acceptance.

Several companies have already built self-driving trucks, including Plus.ai, Embark Trucks, Peterbilt Motor Company, TuSimple, Inc., Waymo LLC, Volvo Group, Starsky Robotics, Daimler AG, and Tesla, Inc. Here are some of each company’s most recent highlights:

  • Plus.ai In August 2019, Plus.ai raised $200 million in its Series B round of funding. The investment yielded exciting results when, not even five months later, one of Plus.ai’s Level 4 trucks completed the first coast-to-coast freight delivery for Land O’Lakes. The autonomous truck successfully traveled 2,800 miles over diverse landscapes to move refrigerated goods from California to Pennsylvania. Even more impressive is the fact that it achieved this feat in less than three days and in mixed weather conditions.
  • Embark Trucks Embark has consistently shown one of the most advanced and powerful displays of self-driving technology since its founding in 2016. In late 2017, Embark’s self-driving trucks successfully moved refrigerators from Texas to California, traveling as many as 306 miles at a time.
  • Peterbilt Motor Company Peterbilt is a truck manufacturer with headquarters in Denton, Texas. It unveiled a Level 4 autonomous truck in 2018 at CES, an annual conference that focuses on consumer electronics. In May 2017, Peterbilt joined forces with Embark and raised over $15 million in Series A funding. In early 2019, the truck these two companies produced successfully completed a  drive from Los Angeles to Jacksonville.
  • TuSimple, Inc. Three of TuSimple’s most recent victories occurred in 2019, when its self-driving technology delivered mail for the United States Postal Service over a span of two weeks, moved loads for UPS over several months, and reeled in over $120 million from investors. TuSimple started developing autonomous trucks in 2015, and has been a leader in the industry ever since.
  • Waymo LLC A subsidiary of Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Waymo is literally building trucks for the long haul, focusing its efforts on autonomous technology that can travel great distances. Waymo has been running trials in California and Arizona since 2017, and, in March 2018, started using its self-driving trucks to haul freight to various Google locations in Atlanta.
  • Volvo Group Volvo announced its first self-driving truck in September 2018: a model named Vera. Versions of this cabin-less truck have been traveling throughout Sweden with very little human interaction. That momentum rolled into 2019, when it began using its Forward Control High Entry (FH) trucks to haul limestone at the Brønnøy Kalk mine in Norway.
  • Starsky Robotics Starsky Robotics has made history twice with its self-driving trucks. The first time occurred in early 2018, when it successfully sent an autonomous truck seven miles down a road in Florida. Then, in 2019, it gave another impressive presentation: its test truck drove a distance of almost 10 miles on a highway without anyone manning the cab — at a speed of 55 miles per hour. This demonstration upped the ante for the entire industry. Starsky Robotics was the first trucking company to achieve this feat.
  • Daimler AG Daimler, the parent company of Mercedez-Benz, has been building self-driving semi-trucks since 2014. In 2019, the company displayed a prototype truck called Cascadia, which it proudly touts as the first Class 8, Level 2 truck with features like automatic lane centering, adaptive cruise control, and emergency braking. Daimler is investing approximately $540 million and scaling its workforce to support the development of its self-driving semi-trucks.
  • Tesla, Inc. No piece about self-driving trucks would be complete without mention of Tesla. Known for pushing the limits of innovation, Tesla has been testing autonomous technology in self-driving semi-trucks since 2017. In 2018, two of the company’s Class 8 big-rigs successfully traveled 240 miles in Nevada, delivering battery packs to one of Tesla’s car factories.

There are many other companies that are competing to produce self-driving semi-trucks (such as Ike and Kodiak Robotics), but the companies in the bulleted list above are the major ones.

Presently, multiple trucking companies have had success implementing the autonomous technology that’s required for Level 1-4 vehicles, though many of them still place a driver in the cab as backup during tests. Now the race is on to create trucks that operate at Levels 5-6. Once companies start seeing favorable outcomes with technology from the highest levels, the goal will be to increase the rate of adoption.

It’s not yet clear how soon we’d see Level 6 semi-trucks on the road once the tech is available. Without a doubt, government and public acceptance will be key. Trucking companies will have to operate these vehicles under strict conditions to win these entities over. Using self-driving trucks in inclement weather or on precarious routes will be out of the question without widespread public approval. According to Transport Topics, self-driving trucks will be best used in industrial settings and on predetermined routes, at least in the early stages.

The fact is the commercial use of autonomous big-rigs is on the horizon. The potential advantages of using these trucks are driving their development. Key players have made great strides in building features that will make the driver’s job more comfortable, in addition to the ones these vehicles need to operate independently. Without a doubt, self-driving semi-trucks will fuel the freight industry well into the future.

Just like self-driving trucks, Flock Freight is making work easier for shippers and carriers.