The on-ramp to the autonomous highway just got a bit more crowded.
Embark Technology, a startup developing self-driving trucks, started quietly delivering refrigerators along a 650-mile stretch of Interstate 10 from El Paso, Texas, to Ontario, Calif., last month.
Others have made limited use of autonomous technology to deliver freight — Uber Technologies Inc. made a 120-mile run with a load of Budweiser beer in Colorado a year ago — but Embark’s shipment of appliances represented the longest commercial use of self-driving trucking technology to date, the Belmont, Calif. company said.
“This pilot is an example of the way that we see self-driving playing into the logistics industry,” Alex Rodrigues, Embark’s chief executive, told Trucks.com. “Automated trucks will provide a sustainable, efficient supply chain network for consumers and allow professional drivers the opportunity to be more productive and have a better quality of life while on the road.”
Embark’s test is a partnership with Frigidaire and Ryder System Inc. Embark’s tractors — outfitted with autonomous driving sensors and software — were used for the highway stretches in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California, and then the trailer was transferred to Ryder System’s tractors to be moved on surface streets.
Embark worked with the appropriate regulatory agencies in all four states to be able to run the self-driving trucks on public roads.
The trucks were driven under so-called Level 2 automation. Under that federal standard, the vehicle can steer itself as well as accelerate and brake under normal conditions. A driver is required to pay attention to the road at all times and take control if the system is unable to navigate a hazard. In Embark’s test, a driver was sitting in the driver’s seat the entire length of the route. But there were stretches as long as 300 miles where the trucks operated using their own intelligence, with the driver only taking control for a mandatory stop at a port of entry, according to the company.
That level of automation doesn’t actually represent autonomous driving, according to California regulators.
“The truck that Embark is using is not autonomous under California law. It is a Level 2 vehicle. Autonomous vehicles are considered Level 3 and above,” Jessica Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles, told Trucks.com.
That distinction allowed Embark to operate in California, Gonzalez said. The company does not have a state permit to test fully autonomous technology, and no vehicle that weighs more than 10,000 pounds is allowed to be used to test autonomous technology in California, she said.
“The DMV has plans to work on a separate rulemaking process for commercial vehicles along with the [California Highway Patrol]. Currently, we are finishing the regulations that cover driverless testing and public use of autonomous vehicles,” Gonzalez said.
The trucking industry and investors see autonomous trucks as a way to slash expenses out of freight shipment.
“Autonomous trucks offer substantial growth, cost-cutting and consolidation opportunities to the fleet operators that can apply the optimal technologies to transform their existing networks,” Adam Jonas, an analyst with Morgan Stanley, wrote in a recent report to investors.
“The key challenges to commercialization of any autonomous driving applications continue to be infrastructure, consumer acceptance, displaced jobs and to a lesser extent, regulation and cost,” Jonas said.
Automation also is seen as a potential solution for a chronic shortage of truck drivers.
“Trucking is facing a workforce problem,” Rodrigues said. “More than 50 percent of all drivers will retire in the next two decades, and there aren’t nearly enough young drivers joining the industry to replace them.”
This could have long-term implications for the industry, said John Blodgett, a consultant at MacKay & Co.
“There will be no real impact in the short term for drivers, since we still have a shortage, but if I was a young person considering to be a driver, this and other similar announcements might give me pause,” Blodgett said.
Blodgett was not surprised to see Ryder involved in the test.
“They seem determined to be a player in future truck technology, regardless of what wins in the long term,” Blodgett said.
Embark’s autonomous trucks join a number of other, similar test projects on the road. Last year, Otto, the Uber division, was the first to carry a commercial load with its shipment of 51,744 cans of beer down a Colorado highway. Other companies working to develop self-driving trucks include Daimler, Volvo and Tesla.