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Autonomous trucking developers slow their roll

Complexities of getting everything ready takes longer than some early predictions

Uber Freight and Volvo Autonomous Solutions are working together to eventually digitally schedule loads for the truckmaker’s one-stop shop for all things autonomy. The cooperation stresses patience over the hype of a launch date. Such caution is becoming common as the complexities surrounding autonomous trucking become more apparent.

Not so fast

Uber Freight announced Wednesday that Volvo Autonomous Solutions would be its first digital freight partnership with a truck manufacturer, and when was the first question. But it was the wrong question to ask. As autonomous trucking announcements come almost weekly, it is possible to become jaded. The declarations are neither equal, nor treated as such.

Give Uber Freight and VAS credit for explaining the difficulties of their goals instead of hyping a specific date.

The Volvo Autonomous Solutions VNL will begin carrying loads from digital broker Uber Freight — when everything is ready. (Photo: Uber Freight)

“We don’t talk about timing in the same way the tech players do because we don’t have that need,” Sasko Cuklev, VAS head of on-road solutions, told me. “We feel confident in our time plans. Exactly when that will happen, let’s see.”

When Cuklev began working on autonomy at Volvo Trucks in the last decade, he watched as promises for driverless trucks to hit the road came and went. First it was 2019. Then 2021.

“Now the industry is talking about ’24, ’25. You have some players that are more aggressive talking about next year,” he said. “I am not sure if it will happen next year, but let’s see. When it happens, we will be there.”

Delays grow common

In May, TuSimple delayed a purpose-built autonomous Navistar International LT Class 8 truck from 2024 to 2025. Last week, Navistar walked away from the 2 ½-year partnership, casting doubt on whether the truck would be produced. Navistar indicated it would have more to say soon on its plans. TuSimple now needs a new partner.

The fate of the purpose-built Navistar International LT is uncertain after Navistar ended a 2 ½-year partnership with TuSimple. (Photo: Alan Adler/FreightWaves)

Aurora Innovation announced commercialization for its Aurora Driver system for the end of 2023 when it went public in 2021 but later backed off to 2024. In its latest safety report issued Friday, CEO Chris Urmson went even more conservative.

“Aurora will not launch our autonomous trucking product until our Safety Case for our initial driverless operations is complete,” he wrote in a letter included in the 63-page report.

Lessons from other businesses

Volvo Group’s approach with the VNL Autonomous truck, catalyzed with the creation of the VAS business unit in October 2019, resembles its approach to electromobility, which falls under the recently created Volvo Energy unit. Volvo requires a Gold Package customer security blanket for every Class 8 VNR Electric daycab purchase.

“What is different is we are offering the solution to the customer so we will be a one-stop shop,” Cuklev said. “The customer will do the business with us and we have Aurora behind us. They’re our partner.”

Uber Freight, which runs pilot loads with Aurora, said announcing VAS as its first autonomous capacity partner is a big deal. Testing autonomous trucking technology is part of a much larger task, said Olivia Hu, Uber Freight head of autonomous.

“That experience is insightful for how we build this into a scaleable, long-term strategy,” she told me. “It’s not a flip of a switch. We’re taking baby steps now toward moving it closer and closer to a full-scale launch.”

Long list of imperatives

Cuklev ticks off a long list of imperatives that extend beyond having confidence in a technologically safe autonomous truck.

The Aurora Innovation-styled Volvo VNL concept autonomous truck first shown in October 2020. (Photo: Volvo Trucks)

Logistics processes. Operations. Who should do what at the transfer hub? Responsibility for inspections. Weigh stations. Toll booths. Fueling. Connecting to transport management systems and fleet management systems. Repair and maintenance, which is critical to taking advantage of a robot truck being able to run 20 or more hours a day. 

Oh, and who washes the truck? 

“All the focus today is on the autonomous truck,” Cuklev said. “It is more than that. That truck has to be put into some kind of context.”

Uber is best known for on-demand ride hailing. Scheduling freight is different. 

“I think about it more as intermodal,” Hu said. “Transportation planners can choose to put their freight on a truck or on a rail. We think it will be a similar option where they can choose to put their cargo on a human-driven truck or an autonomous truck.”

TuSimple’s lonely winter

TuSimple Holdings CEO Cheng Lu will be the first to say the reputationally damaged autonomous truck developer has a long road to winning back stakeholders.

You can see it in analyst ratings for TuSimple shares, which closed Thursday at an all-time low of $1.60 on the Nasdaq. 

Bank of America was the latest to deliver a gut punch, cutting its target price to $1 a share from $2.50.

Four analysts have rated the stock with a sell rating, four have given a hold rating and six have issued a buy rating to the stock. Based on data from MarketBeat, the company has an average rating of Hold and an average target price of $22.62. The mostly self-inflicted wounds leading to the analyst downgrades don’t need retelling here. 

TuSimple has begun making over its all-insider board of directors. James Lu, former head of Amazon Global Marketing and the chairperson of Grindr, the world’s largest LGBTQ social networking application, was appointed Monday as an independent director. 

According to a TuSimple news release, Lu brings more than 20 years of experience in the technology sector as an entrepreneur, executive and investor. Lu has no family relation to Cheng Lu. 

Freightliner Cascadia computer brains still targets

Thieves continue stealing the computer brains from older model Freightliner Cascadias.

The latest outbreaks in San Bernardino and Bakersfield, California, snuck up on law enforcement. Smash-and-grab thieves rendered the trucks inoperable by stealing the common powertrain control modules that control engine and powertrain functions.

The computer brains of older model Freightliner Cascadias are still the target of thieves. (Photo: Daimler Truck North America)

San Bernardino is part of California’s Inland Empire, where many warehouse centers receive cargo hauled from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Bakersfield had no reports of CPC thefts in 2021 but counted 27 in a two-month period beginning in July.

The thefts were more of a phenomenon earlier this year when semiconductor chips were scarce and the modules were being stripped of their chips. Whole stolen units commanded as much as $8,000 on the black market.

With the chip crisis largely resolved, prices on the stolen CPCs have dropped. But they are still pulling in low thousands of dollars. San Bernardino has had 40 reported thefts since November.

The market-leading Cascadia is the only known tractor susceptible to the thefts. Daimler issued a statement in May warning about the issue and suggesting ways to prevent theft and what to do if victimized.

A Daimler spokesman told Truck Tech the situation is improving with more reporting and tracking along with more availability of new and refurbished CPCs.

“After a fall spike in reported thefts — likely related to greater awareness among the various law enforcement agencies we’ve been working with — we’ve observed a recent drop-off in the number of thefts reported across the country. [The] stabilization of the supply chain for these critical components should lead to greater relief in the coming weeks and months.”

That’s it for this week. Thanks for reading. Truck Tech will return on Jan. 6.

Editor’s note: CORRECTS Hu’s title to head of autonomous and deletes reference to Waymo Via pilots with Uber Freight

One Comment

  1. Michael Hopper

    The entire industry needs to shift gears and focus on a hybrid autonomous system. What the industry needs now is a truck that a solo driver can do team miles. Driver does all pickup and delivery but truck runs point to point Hwy miles. It would be easier to create dedicated Hwy lanes for these trucks. If careers can turn every solo driver into a team driver it would be the next revolutionary step. We are never getting to autonomous trucks without this step.

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Alan Adler

Alan Adler is an award-winning journalist who worked for The Associated Press and the Detroit Free Press. He also spent two decades in domestic and international media relations and executive communications with General Motors.