Waymo, Aurora, Daimler and other developers of self-driving truck systems all are working with otherwise conventional vehicles that have cabs, a seat for a driver and manual controls such as steering wheels and pedals. Einride, a Swedish company, is going in the opposite direction, designing a cabless freight drone.
It’s a startling vision. The tractor looks more like a science fiction movie prop than the typical Peterbilt or Freightliner that ply America’s road. It is made up of two aerodynamic wedges. There are no windows or doors. It’s clear this is a robot.
Einride is building an autonomous electric pod that can replace conventional trucks and drivers, transporting goods over long distances.
Robert Falck, Einride’s chief executive, envisions fleets of unmanned pods operating on autonomously on trucking routes in a shift that increases freight capacity while slashing operating costs and eliminating emissions. Remote drivers will supervise the vehicles from a command center, stepping in on occasion to help the trucks navigate tricky sections of their routes.
Already it has the vehicle pulling goods autonomously between two warehouses for Swedish logistics provider DB Schenker.
But it is not clear when Einride might expand autonomous trucking beyond a few short-range pilot projects.
“It’s more of a legislation question than it is a technical challenge,” Falck said. “We have some limited permits here in Sweden, but we are working on getting the longer distance permits.”
In the end, Falck said the business case for autonomous trucking would win out. But the transformation will be incremental rather than a sudden rapid adoption, he said.
Falck believes current over-the-road trucking is inefficient. The trucks cost too much – the cab and powertrain alone make up about 85 percent of the cost. Trucks travel too many miles, either empty or with partial loads.
“Just the cost of the cab is enough to pay for all the sensors on an autonomous truck,” Falck said.
Moreover, electric trucks will save money both in lower maintenance and lower cost-per-mile operation. He said it’s less expensive to power a vehicle on electricity than it is on diesel fuel.
Although Einride is working with some motor carrier partners, Falck is setting up the company to work as a freight service provider – essentially a competitor to existing trucking firms. He sees a day when large companies will own or lease autonomous trucks like Einride’s pods. They will be paired with software that links all vehicles operating in the fleet digitally and provides optimized, dynamic route planning based on shipping demands and loading dock availability.
Einride on Thursday said it raised $10 million in new funding from existing investors led by Norrsken VC. This latest round of funds follows the $25 million Einride collected in a Series A round one year ago. It will use the new money to launch its pods and continue its work using electric trucks to transport goods for clients, including vegan foods producer Oatly and Lidl, a European grocery chain.
Falck knows the new money is a small amount compared with the billions of dollars being poured into autonomous vehicle development by incumbent truck manufacturers, automakers and tech companies such as Waymo.
But he said Einride is on track to collect about $10 million in revenue from operations next year when many of these rivals have yet to earn any money from their pilot programs.
He likens his position to the Wright brothers, who used a shoestring budget, carpentry, bicycle mechanic skills and engineering know-how to build the first airplane on a shoestring.