SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. — Inside a gated parking lot adjacent to a metal scrap business and surrounded by fully grown palm trees, a demonstration of the future of drayage for autonomous trucks played out on a partly cloudy spring morning.
Autonomous software developer Embark Trucks brought one of its Peterbilt 579 sleeper cabs equipped for a supervised run to the Phoenix suburb of Tolleson, Arizona. A 53-foot trailer with a half-load of HP Inc. printers arrived in near silence except a toot of its horn to announce its presence. The BYD 8TT electric truck emitted no exhaust because it runs on batteries.
Embark and BYD North America conducted electric-to-autonomous transfers every few weeks from June to December 2021. San Francisco-based Embark agreed to stage a demo for FreightWaves.
Embark and BYD dance in the transfer yard
Under a deceptively hot sun in California’s Inland Empire — where thousands of trucks haul freight from the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles to warehouses and distribution centers — everything about the demo was for real: the choreography of the trucks in a relatively confined 22,000-square-foot lot; the drop and hook of the trailer; and the pre-trip inspections.
“We had been doing normal drayage for a while with HP,” said Nathan Hazard, Embark business development lead. “The goal was to see how it fit operationally to see if there was any impact to the Embark operations, any impact to HP operations or any impact to the carrier operations.”
Spoiler alert: There weren’t.
Watch Now: Embark autonomous and BYD electric trucks complete a drop and hook of the future
“It fits in seamlessly with the operational model we had,” Hazard told FreightWaves as he watched the Embark and BYD trucks position themselves for the handoff. “We had 100% on-time shipments when we were working with [BYD].”
That doesn’t mean nothing changed.
“For Embark, it required a little bit more coordination with the carrier because of the limitations of the battery technology.”
Most electric trucks operating in the ports can make a single round trip covering 125 miles from a distribution center and back. Embark didn’t try to go that far.
Embark sees customer demand for electric trucks
California is stepping up regulations on diesel trucks moving into and out of the ports. It recently began charging $10 for each entry and exit per 20-foot-equivalent container.
“Of course, you’re going to have regulators and state legislators who will push this. But I think more and more, we’re seeing the pull factor [from customers],” Hazard said. “This fits into Embark’s ESG [environmental, social and governance] goals and, as we work with our shippers, they all have sustainability goals that they’re reporting in their financial statements.”
NFI Industries Inc.,, for example, will field all of its 100 drayage trucks operating on electricity by mid-2023. It is relying on second-generation Volvo VNR Electrics because they can travel 275 miles between charging, enough for two round trips from NFI’s Chino operation in the Inland Empire to the ports.
Generally, Class 8 electric trucks manage around 150 miles between chargings, meaning the single-charge range is insufficient for regular use.
But it is coming. Daimler Truck North America’s second-generation eCascadia can typically cover 230 miles before needing to be recharged. Nikola’s battery-electric Tre can go 300 to 350 miles on a single charge, but the tractor’s 29,000-pound weight requires caution to avoid overloading.
The BYD 8TT in the demo had 23,210 miles on the odometer. With a half-load, it gets 167 miles of range. A full load cuts that to 124 miles. BYD had electric trucks in service in the U.S. before anyone. It has delivered more than 100 of its 8TT model, including 21 to Anheuser-Busch for beer deliveries in Southern California.
Embark focuses on autonomy, not buying trucks
Embark isn’t buying many more trucks than the 20 in its test fleet. And it has no plans to go electric.
“Our model is to work with carriers. Carriers buy the trucks from the OEMs,” Hazard said. “We partner with carriers and we’ll provide the technology for them.”
After 15 minutes or so of transferring the HP load, the blue Embark tractor exited the gate, manually traversing a few surface streets to reach Interstate 215 for access to Interstate 10 and the seven-hour run to Phoenix covering about 300 miles in autonomous mode.
Safety driver Peter Miller, occupying the driver’s seat in case human intervention was needed, said he has seen dramatic improvements in the truck’s self-operating skills.
“Now, it’s so seamless in the things it does, it’s pretty cool,” he said. “I’m kind of jaded in a way because I’ve been here for four years so I’ve seen the truck in its early versions until now.”
The demo reinforced what Embark, HP and BYD learned in six months of trials.
“Embark proved that with today’s battery technology, we can use first-mile trucks in EV drayage and it fits into both our operating model as well as our partnership model,” Hazard said. “It’s using the sustainable benefits of autonomous and electric vehicles as we can with today’s technology.
“We think far in the future EV trucks with AV technology will be the gold standard.”