While Google’s Waymo company has taken center stage for bringing self-driving cars to roads, autonomous trucking may make it to the mainstream first.
Silicon Valley startups, technologists, and venture capitalists see great potential in the technology - even more than most traditional trucking companies are supporting.
For months, Tesla CEO Elon Musk has put out teasers that the electric carmaker will soon reveal an electric semi-truck with autonomous capabilities. That announcement may take place this week, on November 16.
Embark, a Silicon Valley start-up, is scheduled to release details next week on its self-driving technology for trucking. The automated system has tested in partnership with truck-leasing company Ryder and Electrolux, an appliance manufacturer. Trial runs are exploring the potential of transporting trailers to Electrolux’s California warehouses with autonomous trucks.
CB Insight, which tracks venture capital, reports that companies will place about $1 billion in commercial truck autonomous systems this year, 10 times the level of spending three years ago.
The $700 billion trucking industry continues to be an integral part of the U.S. economy, and that of other economic giants and developing countries around the world. With more manufacturing happening overseas in places like China, trucking is part of making sure everything from automobiles to packaged food products make it to warehouses and end users on time.
Trucking companies and giants who invest heavily in logistics—like Amazon and Walmart—see great potential in cutting costs and speeding up delivery times. That will come via cutting labor costs when truck drivers no longer become necessary, and by extending the hours that commercial trucks can be kept in operation.
Companies also believe that traffic accidents will be reduced when autonomous vehicles become widely adopted for passenger and cargo transport.
Insurance premiums are expected to go down, along with collision repair costs. Autonomous driving is expected to be much safer than what’s delivered by human drivers.
Waymo and other tech companies and automakers currently testing out self-driving cars are preparing to play a part in developing cities around the world. Government officials, employers, and residents in these cities hope that self-driving cars will eventually reduce the number of cars on the streets and make them safer with less car crashes.
Self-driving cars face tougher challenges navigating through crowded, chaotic city streets—and face even tougher regulatory hurdles to cross. Cargo trucks spend most of their time traveling down broad, open highways with much less traffic.
There’s also the practicality of several trucks “platooning” together on highways that simplifying the equation over companies like Waymo dealing with crowded cities and higher risk for collisions.
Volvo Trucks sees great potential in utilizing platooning systems for cost savings and achieving more efficiency in freight hauling. One autonomous truck can lead a platoon with two or more trucks following close behind, taking advantage of the aerodynamic efficiency.
The company successfully demonstrated on-highway truck platooning in California during March 2017. An alliance was set up for the trial run with Partners for Advanced Transportation Technology (PATH) at the University of California, Berkeley, to test three Volvo VNL 670 model tractors hauling cargo containers at the Los Angeles Port complex and along Interstate 110.
Volvo sees opportunities in achieving fuel savings, improving highway safety, and increasing the capacity of transportation systems.
Daimler AG’s truck division is following a similar path, announcing in September that it will test platooning technology on U.S. roads. The German company’s U.S. division gained approval from Oregon’s transportation regulatory agency after completing a successful trial run in the state.
US Xpress, one of the largest trucking companies in the U.S., added autonomous braking and collision-avoidance systems to its 7,000-plus truck fleet. Next, the company will add automated lane steering for deployment within the next three years.
The 7,000-plus trucks owned by US Xpress, one of the nation’s largest trucking companies, were updated with autonomous braking and collision-avoidance systems. Max Fuller, the company’s co-founder and executive chairman, plans to upgrade them to have automated lane steering in three years.
“I’m putting building blocks into my trucks that each year gets us closer and closer,” said Max Fuller, the company’s co-founder and executive chairman.
Another Silicon Valley company, Peloton Technology, is developing a platooning system that will make it easier for trucks to travel within a platoon. That means they’ll save large volumes of gasoline and diesel typically consumed by work trucks.
Peloton’s system uses cameras, sensors, and networking equipment for trucks to communicate with each other. It can avoid disasters such as a second truck ramming into the first after a sudden stop.
Goldman Sachs economists predicted that trucking will shed about 300,000 jobs per year starting in about 25 years. That may begin sooner than anticipated if automated trucking clears government hurdles and technology innovations—and becomes widely adopted by trucking companies.