Autonomous Trucking Gains Steam But Big Hurdles Remain

March 31, 2021 by Jerry Hirsch, @Jerryhirsch

A series of recent deals demonstrates how the journey to autonomous trucking is gaining speed. 

Volvo Group announced a partnership with Aurora Innovation to develop a self-driving truck that can operate an autonomous hub-to-hub freight service in the U.S. 

Volvo and the Palo Alto, Calif., Aurora put a general “several years” time frame on the project, but they clearly want to move forward as quickly as technology development allows. 

“The Volvo Group sees automation as a key enabler for the future and is investing heavily in developing autonomy enabled commercial vehicles. And not just the vehicles, but whole transport solutions that make them possible, and new business models that make them commercially attractive,” said Nils Jaeger, president of Volvo Autonomous Solutions.

The companies envision an initial service where a human will drive a load to a highway-adjacent hub. An autonomous tractor would then haul it to a distant hub, where a human driver would take over for the route to its final destination. That avoids the complexities of automated driving in congested areas. Although still incredibly complex, highway driving is among the most uncomplicated challenges for self-driving vehicles.  

Still, there’s a wrinkle Volvo will face as it rolls out a service. It puts the truck manufacturer in direct competition with trucking fleets, its biggest customers. It also brings up an interesting issue. Will autonomous technology eventually allow truck manufacturers to supplant trucking companies? 

A trucking company’s added value is expertise in finding drivers, knowing routes, and having the skill to expedite deliveries, even in brutal weather or traffic conditions. But robotic trucking has the potential to do all of that with artificial intelligence. Such services will still need humans to monitor loads, watch for theft and perform other tasks. Trucking companies need to start thinking about where they will fit in the equation as truck manufacturers begin to offer freight services. 

In another deal, autonomous truck developer Plus has added $220 million in new financing in a late March round co-led by FountainVest Partners and ClearVue Partners. That was an extension of the $200 million round in February led by CPE and Guotai Junan International.

“Plus is the only autonomous trucking company to start mass production of its autonomous driving system this year, and this investment will help fuel plans to bring our automated trucks to market,” said David Liu, the Cupertino, Calif., company’s chief executive and co-founder.

Plus is in the final stages of receiving Chinese certification for its PlusDrive system. The automated driving system will go into production in a truck jointly developed with FAW, a Chinese manufacturer, later this year.

“Autonomous driving is going to revolutionize the world, across consumer and commercial applications,” said Li “Kathleen” Ying, Partner at Plus-investor ClearVue.

Other manufacturers also are pouring money into the area. Daimler Trucks is developing its own self-driving Freightliner and also is working with Waymo. Autonomous technology startup TuSimple has deals with Navistar and Volkswagen’s truck division. Aurora also has a partnership with Paccar, the owner of the Kenworth and Peterbilt brands. With the Volvo deal, Aurora is now working with manufacturers with nearly a 50% share of the U.S. Class 8 truck market.  

All of these companies are betting that autonomous trucking is near in some form. Most see it starting on mapped highways in the Southwest, where there are good roads and fewer weather problems.

The hub-to-hub system is the starting point. Aurora also wants to get to depot-to-depot robotic hauling.

Still, there are many hurdles, and some of the biggest have nothing to do with technology.

First, there is the question of how people will react when they see they are driving on the highway next to an 80,000-pound truck with no driver inside? Many drivers hate being next to or behind a human-driven truck. Will they panic? Will they start to demand legislation and regulation that hinders autonomous operations?

And then there is the question of crashes.

The National Safety Council estimates that 42,060 people died in vehicle crashes in 2020, 8 percent more than in 2019, even though people drove fewer miles because of the pandemic. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said 94 percent of collisions are caused by human error. There are almost no actual accidents.

Autonomous driving has the potential to reduce crashes significantly. Insurance data tracking damage and medical claims already prove that light vehicles with automatic emergency braking are far less likely to have their driver as the culprit in a collision. But what type of error rate will the public accept? People are likely to be far more accepting of humans continuing to kill humans than robots killing humans, even if it is at a dramatically lower rate.

This is an opinion piece. Trucks.com welcomes divergent thoughts and opinions on transport technology and trucking industry issues. Use the comments section to cite yours. Qualified opinion leaders are welcome to offer suggestions for opinion columns. Contact info@trucks.com.

Jerry Hirsch January 11, 2021
Trucking remains one of the deadliest occupations, according to the latest federal data on workplace deaths. 

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