The world still hasn’t seen the widespread presence of self-driving trucks on the road, but the transportation industry is diligently working to make this a reality.
While autonomous trucks are already being tested and making deliveries every day along dedicated routes, questions about how autonomous trucks will interact, and exist in, their environments still need to be answered.
For instance, what lanes will be best suited for autonomous trucks? How will on-the-ground operations need to be adjusted? How will trip inspections and truck maintenance change? What will be the process for breakdowns and emergencies? What regulatory hurdles need to be conquered?
Embark, the self-driving software company behind the longest-running autonomous truck program in the U.S., and DHL Supply Chain, the world’s leading contract logistics provider, were inspired to partner together to find solutions to these tough questions.
Embark’s model includes transfer hubs across the U.S., where human drivers hand off to autonomous software-enabled trucks. Embark-powered trucks take over from there and complete the middle leg of the trips, which are often seen as less desirable routes by human drivers. The run ends at the next transfer hub, where another human driver will complete the final mile. A person in the driver’s seat can easily navigate the denser, more urban areas while giving him or her a job closer to home.
As Jon Cox, senior director of solutions design for DHL Supply Chain in North America, put it, Embark is concerned with the “nitty-gritty details” of self-driving technology. This rigorous attention to detail is exactly what is needed to ensure autonomous trucks operate safely and efficiently from start to finish.
Since 2021, DHL has been a part of Embark’s Partner Development Program (PDP), in which carriers work alongside Embark to test and refine critical parts of the overall autonomous operating model. This includes remote vehicle monitoring, vehicle maintenance procedures, autonomous vehicle (AV) dispatching rules and transfer hub logistics. DHL brings to the table its diverse perspective and wide breadth of its business, allowing Embark to test and improve its AV software with a company with deep industry knowledge.
“From the beginning, DHL has been a great partner. … With full truckload operations, LTL, air and parcel, they have a comprehensive view of the freight market, which allows us to pressure test our business model across a diverse set of use cases,” said Andy Sussman, business development director and leader of the PDP at Embark.
Through this collaboration, Embark and DHL launched a pilot program to answer the vital questions surrounding large-scale deployment of self-driving trucks.
Lessons from their pilot
In October 2021, Embark and DHL began their pilot route from Southern California to Phoenix delivering for one of DHL’s largest customers. With 9,000 AV miles under their belt so far, all DHL’s delivery requirements have been satisfied, and the companies have learned valuable lessons on both the operations and technology sides.
DHL was able to get a good understanding of the time required for AV pre- and post-trip inspections and learned the need for consistent communication methods to streamline paperwork handoffs.
The company is also finding benefits like faster transit and lower costs. For example, this AV technology implemented in Embark’s model provides the opportunity to reimagine on-the-ground deliveries, which opens up the doors to greater efficiency that wasn’t before possible due to human constraints.
“Because AV trucks will be able to drive 24/7 and do not require stopping or breaks, our customers will be able to fundamentally change the performance and design of their distribution networks,” Cox said. “As a comprehensive 3PL solution, we see this as an additional opportunity to serve our customers as they adjust network footprints to fully take advantage of these AV benefits.”
A big win for the autonomous trucking industry
Working together allows both companies to get a better understanding of the possibilities of AV technology, but it’s no secret the trucking industry is known for its regulation. In addition to a focus on technical details, sending a driverless truck requires a clear understanding of how AVs will fit into the already established protocols trucks must adhere to.
Traditionally, commercial motor vehicle (CMV) enforcement requires all trucks be available to stop at weigh stations for randomized truck inspections. Varied facility designs that often rely on hand signals from officers pose navigational challenges for AV trucks. Human drivers are also usually required to perform tasks that assist with the truck inspection procedures at weigh stations.
Members of the trucking industry collaborated together to figure out how AV trucks could overcome these issues while increasing the level of safety for the trucking industry, culminating in the enhanced CMV inspection standard and training course that was recently announced by the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance (CVSA). By having CVSA-trained personnel perform this enhanced inspection 100% of the time, every AV truck would meet a higher standard of safety, eliminating the need for random inspections and allowing the AV truck to bypass weigh stations.
Sometimes emergency stops are still necessary, however. For these circumstances, Embark worked closely with the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Travis County Sheriff’s Office to develop technical and operations protocols for interactions between driverless trucks and law enforcement, leading Embark to accomplish its emergency vehicle interactions milestone.
Once an Embark-powered truck identifies emergency vehicles via lights and other cues, it pulls over safely onto highway shoulders. At this point, law enforcement officers can safely approach the vehicle to receive the required information from an autonomous truck easily through a 24-hour phone hotline to Embark personnel and external document lockbox. As AV technology continues to scale, this kind of cooperation with local and federal regulations will be a critical key to the success of its roadway integration, and it is an area Embark continues to spend time focusing on.
What’s to come?
Progress on the path to commercialization has been promising. DHL is seeing the possibilities expand beyond its current use, including implementing AVs in some of its other services, like using it to connect its distribution centers across each region.
“Reliable capacity along with faster service allows our customers to take advantage of AVs to prioritize their most urgent inventory moves, thereby minimizing on-time, in-full, or OTIF, fines,” Cox said.
It is seeing a future where customers will be able to bypass AV hub transfer points for dock-to-dock transfers, enabling autonomous deliveries between DHL-operated warehouses.
“We’ve already started a process with Embark to understand the changes that need to be made to those sites to optimize for AV shipments,” Cox said.
Embark-powered autonomous vehicles are making deliveries and being tested each day, pushing forward progress along its technical road map, which is ultimately the path toward commercialization.
For the rest of 2022, Embark is focusing on perfecting evasive maneuvers and further developing its technology into the new year.
“Deployment will not be like a new smartphone where it rolls out nationwide all at once,” said Sam Abidi, Embark’s chief commercial officer and leader of the commercial team. “We expect to see limited deployments on specific lanes in the near term, and over time we will work with partners to scale.”
Click here to learn more about Embak’s autonomous software.