Self-driving trucks have been hauling refrigerators about 650 miles along Interstate 10, from El Paso to a distribution center in Palm Springs, California.
Partners Embark, Ryder and Electrolux are conducting what amounts to elaborate dry runs to imagine what self – driving – truck routes will look like. The runs start with human drivers leaving an Electrolux warehouse in El Paso and driving to the edge of the city, where they hitch the trailer to one of Embark’s autonomous trucks.
From there the truck drives itself for 650 highway miles (with a safety driver in tow) to Ontario, California, where the Embark drivers transfer their trailer to another Ryder driver, who drives the final few miles to one of Electrolux’s California warehouses.
“It’s a mirror of what we would do if there weren’t a driver inside,” said Rodrigues, Embark’s chief executive.
Someday, trucks will drive themselves out of the warehouses and drive down freeways without the aid of humans or even a driver’s cab — about that there seems little disagreement. The question is how soon that day will approach.
The answers vary — technologists, not surprisingly, are more persuasive than truckers. Billions of dollars and a growing amount of companies are betting that it will be here sooner than most people think.
Companies and investors are on pace to put just over $1 billion into self-driving and other trucking technologies, this year, 10 times the level of three years ago, which tracks the venture capital industry.
Tesla showcased an electric truck last week that will have some self-driving capabilities. And Embark, a Silicon Valley startup, announced that it has been testing its self-driving technology as part of a three-way partnership with the Ryder and the appliance giant Electrolux.
“We are trying to get self-driving technology out on the road as fast as possible,” said Alex Rodrigues, Embark’s chief executive. “Trucking needs self-driving and self-driving needs trucking.”
Unlike autonomous cars, which face questions about navigating chaotic urban streets, trucks spend a lot of time heading straight on isolated highways. And while the arrival of the self-driving car will rest on the decisions of individual consumers, logistics companies are unemotional operators that will upgrade their fleets the moment it makes financial sense.
Even companies not explicitly chasing the goal of self-driving trucks are moving steadily toward a more automated future. The 7,000-plus trucks owned by US Xpress, one of the nation’s largest trucking companies, have been 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,” he said.
Runions works for Starsky Robotics, a San Francisco startup that for the past two years has been testing its self-driving technology by running freight up and down Florida. The runs help collect data and hone the technology, in hopes of convincing regulators and the company itself that self-driving trucks are ready for business.
Starsky’s ultimate plan, of course, is to eliminate Runions’ job. But they do not want him to be out of one. Stefan Seltz-Axmacher, Starsky’s 27-year-old chief executive, foresees using self-driving technology to replace long-haul drivers on freeways but having people like Runions navigate at either end of the trip with remote control consoles that look like an arcade racing game.
Drivers would go off to work in offices and might spend their day driving trucks through the last few miles of several different routes in several different cities before heading home for dinner.
“One driver can drive 10 to 30 trucks per day,” Seltz-Axmacher said.
Starsky’s vision of a remote operation is unique. But the basic idea is that trucks will drive themselves on highways and let human drivers take over in complicated city environments.
“One of the big misconceptions about self-driving technology is that it is going to emerge and be able to drive all the time in all circumstances,” said Alden Woodrow, product manager for Uber’s self-driving truck unit.
Given that trucks are likely to need drivers for some time, it’s no wonder that self-driving companies are almost universally pitching themselves as a friendly partner instead of a job killer. “You increase productivity, but also make the job more attractive,” Rodrigues said.
Trucking is a tough job. Drivers endure long, tedious hours when they are tired but must stay focused, and they spend weeks at a time away from home. For those and other reasons, the industry’s biggest problem has been the deficiency and turnover of drivers.
“We see this as a solution to the driver shortage and being able to redeploy them to the jobs they actually want,” said Chris Nordh, senior director of advanced vehicle technologies at Ryder.
Predicting are hard —, especially about the future. But you can learn a lot by looking at today’s bets.