The autonomous long-haul trucking industry is starting to look a bit cramped.
Tuesday morning, Starsky Robotics emerged from a year and a half in stealth to unveil its end-to-end driverless trucking technology. A few days earlier, Embark did the same for its own self-driving truck system for highway use.
The companies, both fronted by young wunderkinds, join Volkswagen, Volvo, Google’s Waymo division and Uber Technologies’ Otto and other companies that already are trying to wean vehicles from human control. Both Starsky and Embark hope to alleviate a worsening truck driver shortage and improve road safety by making trucker life more appealing and manageable.
“It’s clear there has been a market for the talent and IP in these companies,” said Michael Ramsey, an automotive analyst with Gartner Inc. “What’s hard to understand is how they radically differentiate themselves from the other self-driving car software companies.”
San Francisco-based Starsky is run by founder Stefan Seltz-Axmacher, 27. The company equips trucks with a system that uses computers, radar and software to drive without a human at the controls on highways and then via remote-controlled on-board robots on local roads.
Such a system would allow truckers to stay close to home, essentially working shifts piloting trucks from various driver centers nationwide while still earning the wages of a long-haul driver. Starsky avoids major urban roads, focusing primarily on freight transferred from warehouses to distribution centers.
“If drivers got to go home every night, it’d be a lot easier to hire drivers — it would fundamentally solve the labor shortage,” Seltz-Axmacher said. “Any technology that doesn’t remove the person from the truck doesn’t solve the problem.”
On Feb. 3, a Starsky-equipped Freightliner Cascadia hauled 5,000 pounds of freight 120 miles on its own and another 20 with remote guidance from Orlando to Fort Lauderdale. In August, another of the company’s vehicles moved trailers around a truck yard — and was paid for the work. Testing has also occurred in Michigan and Nevada — states where “the regulatory environment is much more favorable to autonomous trucks,” Seltz-Axmacher said.
Once off the exits, the trucks are driven by a robotic framework that physically pushes pedals, turns steering wheels and changes gears on command, Seltz-Axmacher said.
It’s essentially “a driver made of steel,” he said.
The 11-person company has raised $3.75 million from sources such as Y-Combinator, Trucks VC, Data Collective and more.
Seltz-Axmacher became interested in trucking during his sophomore year of college in Philadelphia, when he visited the Mack truck factory near Allentown as part of an internship. After graduating, he moved west to work in startups.
He said he approaches the technology as someone sympathetic to drivers and “not as some entitled Silicon Valley brats.” Many of his rivals “would be quite afraid to walk around the truck-yard and talk to actual drivers,” he said.
“Our advantage has been that we’ve been in an uncomfortable middle ground between regulatory folks, insurance folks, Silicon Valley, truck folks,” he said. “We don’t really fit into any of those circles, but we’ve been able to talk to them all.”
Embark, which emerged from stealth on Friday, occupies a similar position.
The company’s technology targets exit-to-exit trucking. Vehicles are autonomously driven on the highway with help from radar, cameras and sensor systems. Millions of data points funneled through an artificial intelligence system known as Deep Neural Nets, or DNN, help the truck learn from its past experiences.
“Analyzing terabyte upon terabyte of real-world data, Embark’s DNNs have learned how to see through glare, fog and darkness on their own,” Rodrigues said in a statement. “We’ve programmed them with a set of rules to help safely navigate most situations, how to safely learn from the unexpected, and how to apply that experience to new situations going forward.”
Human drivers meet the trucks outside cities at off-ramp staging areas and then guide the vehicles through local streets.
Co-founded by Alex Rodrigues and Brandon Moak — who are both 21 — San Mateo-based Embark was granted permission earlier this year by Nevada to test vehicles on the state’s public highways. The company’s trucks have clocked 10,000 miles so far.
Embark has 10 employees, including veterans of SpaceX and Audi, as well as a multi-million-dollar investment from Maven Ventures. Rodrigues, who built his first autonomous robot at age 13, conceived Embark while waiting for a tow truck on an interstate and watching 18-wheelers drive past with “Drivers Wanted” signs.
Both Starsky and Embark are entering an increasingly complicated industry. Skeptics of autonomous vehicles question how driverless technology can operate in real world conditions that include sparse road markings and street rules that change from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
Uber-owned Otto has run into recent trouble. Google-owned Waymo sued the company in California this month, claiming that Otto co-founder and Google alum Anthony Levandowski stole proprietary data and used it to develop technology for his new business.
Also in February, the Consumer Watchdog safety group filed a complaint with the California Department of Motor Vehicles alleging that Otto did not file for permits necessary to operate its self-driving vehicles in the state. The watchdog organization also claimed that Otto’s trucks exceeded the 10,000-pound weight restrictions for test vehicles.