Estimates are that by 2026, the global freight industry will reach $2.7 trillion in revenues. Large trucks form the backbone of the global supply chain, from shipping ports to warehouses. Even in countries with advanced intermodal transportation infrastructure, like the US — where box container cars are lifted off ships and loaded onto double-decker trains — trucks often accomplish the last-mile delivery to the warehouse. The US trucking is a $700 billion industry.
While autonomous cars have captured the imagination of the average reader, artificial intelligence is slowly taking over the self-driving truck industry. Led by Silicon Valley behemoths like Waymo, a Google subdivision, start-ups like Plus.AI, and Tusimple are developing advanced technologies where driverless trucks can become common, scary as the idea may seem.
The US alone is facing a shortage of over 80,000 truck drivers. Long-time drivers are quitting the industry in droves, exasperated at the terrible work-life balance, low pay, and grueling safety rules. The US Department of Transportation rules forbid truckers from driving at speeds more than 60 miles an hour and driving more than 10 hours in a 24-hour period. Food and facilities at truck stops are often sub-par, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle is out of the question. Drivers miss time with families, always being on the road.
Autonomous trucks address all these concerns. They navigate using a guidance system with dozens of cameras, radar, and thousands of sensors. Some vehicles can peer half a mile down the road. As a professional test driver of Waymo says, these trucks don't ever experience fatigue or get distracted — the two most common reasons for highway accidents. Nor do they engage in road rage.
While each company is working on its own business model, Embark Trucks, a San Francisco-based software company, is taking a different route. It plans to serve the after-market truck segment by providing integrated systems to existing logistics giants, such as Werner or Rider, who have thousands of trucks in their fleet.
Embark works to deploy its autonomous solutions directly to these fleets. It says it has tested its software for over four years and boasts a flawless accident record. In 2017, Embark, Frigidaire, the appliance manufacturer, and Ryder Truck Rental, operated a 650-mile automated freight route, from West Texas, through New Mexico, Arizona, and into California.
Success stories seem to come naturally to the company's young CEO, 27-year-old Alex Rodrigues. While studying at the University of Waterloo, he and co-founder Brandon Moak built Canada's first self-driving vehicle, a golf cart named "Marvin," to take guests on campus tours. Moak now leads engineering and R&D and has overseen the development of the Embark Driver software, the core of the company's commercialisation effort.
Moak has set aside 16 major development milestones and completed 11 of them. One milestone, for example, is how an autonomous truck driving down the highway responds to a routine traffic stop initiated by a police officer. In tests, the truck recognises the flashing red and blue lights of an officer's car and safely pulls over to the side of the highway. When the officer approaches the truck's passenger side door, he notices no driver inside.
A sign by the door invites him to reach out to a call center. After he presents proper authentication, the representative provides the officer with a code that unlocks an external safe containing the truck's registration and bill of lading documents. The truck's rear can be remotely opened to permit officer inspection if necessary.
Innovation for impact
Embark focuses only on the Artificial Intelligence side of the problem as a software company, leaving the other technical challenges to be handled by the truck manufacturer or the logistics company. Its business model is to license the software and recover costs per mile of use, the standard metric in the trucking industry.
Among other innovative ideas, Embark plans to operate its "transport hubs" close to major highways. Suppose a full container load needs to be transported from Los Angeles to Phoenix. A local truck driver hauls the container to its transport hub by a highway in Los Angeles. The container disconnects from the local truck and connects to an Embark-powered tractor, a fully autonomous vehicle.
Upon receiving a go signal, the tractor pulls the container load out of the hub, navigates to the highway, and drives the 235 miles to its transport hub destination in Phoenix, entirely unassisted by a human driver. Another local driver detaches the container at the hub, connects to his own tractor, and hauls it to the warehouse.
Embark expects to be fully operational in 2024, by which time its other competitors could be active too. A true revolution is in the making, and technology enthusiasts cannot wait to see how the world will change.