The long road to driverless trucks


In March, a self-driving 18-wheeler spent more than five consecutive days hauling goods between Dallas and Atlanta. Running around the clock, it traveled more than 6,300 miles, making four round trips and delivering eight loads of freight.

The result of a partnership between Kodiak Robotics, a self-driving startup, and U.S. Xpress, a traditional trucking company, this five-day drive demonstrated the enormous potential of autonomous trucks. A traditional truck, whose lone driver must stop and rest each day, would need more than 10 days to deliver the same freight.

But the drive also showed that the technology is not yet ready to realize its potential. Each day, Kodiak rotated a new team of specialists into the cab of its truck, so that someone could take control of the vehicle if anything went wrong. These “safety drivers” grabbed the wheel multiple times.

Tech startups like Kodiak have spent years building and testing self-driving trucks, and companies across the trucking industry are keen to reap the benefits. At a time when the global supply chain is struggling to deliver goods as efficiently as businesses and consumers now demand, autonomous trucks could alleviate bottlenecks and reduce costs.

Now comes the most difficult stretch in this quest to automate freight delivery: getting these trucks on the road without anyone behind the wheel.

Companies like Kodiak know the technology is a long way from the moment trucks can drive anywhere on their own. So they are looking for ways to deploy self-driving trucks solely on highways, whose long, uninterrupted stretches are easier to navigate than city streets teeming with stop-and-go traffic.

“Highways are a more structured environment,” said Alex Rodrigues, CEO of the self-driving-truck startup Embark. “You know where every car is supposed to be going. They’re in lanes. They’re headed in the same direction.”

Restricting these trucks to the highway also plays to their strengths. “The biggest problems for long-haul truckers are fatigue, distraction and boredom,” Rodrigues explained on a recent afternoon as one of his company’s trucks cruised down a highway in Northern California. “Robots don’t have a problem with any of that.”

It’s a sound strategy, but even this will require years of additional development.

Part of the challenge is technical. Though self-driving trucks can handle most of what happens on a highway — merging into traffic from an on-ramp, changing lanes, slowing for cars stopped on the shoulder — companies are still working to ensure they can respond to less common situations, like a sudden three-car pileup.

As he continued down the highway, Rodrigues said his company has yet to perfect what he calls evasive maneuvers. “If there is an accident in the road right in front of the vehicle,” he explained, “it has to stop itself quickly.” For this and other reasons, most companies do not plan on removing safety drivers from their trucks until at least 2024. In many states, they will need explicit approval from regulators to do so.


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