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Embark will install autonomous software in Knight-Swift trucks

Latest example of advancing timetable for autonomous trucks to hit the road

Embark Trucks will install its Embark Driver autonomous software in some trucks owned by for-hire giant Knight-Swift Transportation by the end of the year. (Photo Embark Trucks)

Editor’s note: Updates throughout with additional details

Embark Trucks will install its autonomous software in some Knight-Swift Transportation tractors by the end of the year, the latest move suggesting that driverless trucking is advancing more quickly than predicted.

Embark (NASDAQ: EMBK) is one of the autonomous software startups that went public via SPAC in the past year. Despite the lack of appetite for its shares, which are trading at about half their initial price, the San Francisco-based Embark is continuing to build on its technology. 

In January, Embark announced autonomous testing in the snow, one of the tougher “edge cases” that driverless trucks will eventually need to master. Rival TuSimple said last week it will begin running driverless freight loads in conjunction with Union Pacific railways in Arizona.

Tuesday’s announcement that Knight-Swift (NYSE: KNX) will designate a “set” of its trucks representing a “modest portion of Knight-Swift’s 2022 orders to be equipped with the Embark Universal Interface. The number of trucks was undisclosed.

It is the first time a Level 4 system will be operated by a for-hire trucking firm. Several autonomous trucking companies, including Embark, haul freight in supervised autonomous trucks. Embark and Knight-Swift are still investigating where in the Sun Belt to deploy the pilot, but they expect the lessons to transfer independent of where the first tests are completed, an Embark spokesman said.

Watch now: Embark will equip Knight-Swift trucks with its autonomous software

Embark, founded in 2016, has been working on autonomous trucking longer than most competitors. It has partnerships with some of the nation’s largest shippers and carriers representing more than 35,000 trucks and $22 billion in annual freight spending.

Embark Universal Interface

The Embark approach of selling an autonomous system that can be integrated into any major manufacturer’s truck differs from the approach by TuSimple, Aurora Innovation and Waymo Via, which are creating systems that fully integrate into the chassis of Navistar International, Volvo, Peterbilt and Freightliner Class 8 trucks. 

Embark claims its interface will work on any of those trucks. Knight-Swift is the first to participate in Embark’s truck transfer program through which it will own and maintain an Embark-equipped truck. Carriers will eventually own or lease trucks with Embark software, paying a per-mile fee for the ability to operate without a human in the cab.

“This will allow Embark and Knight-Swift to collect detailed driver feedback on the technology’s performance, define how the system will improve driver jobs, and develop procedures and tools that enable Knight-Swift to maintain, inspect, dispatch and remotely monitor Embark-equipped trucks,” according to an Embark press release.

Subset of Level 4 capability

For the pilot program, the Embark Driver will run only a subset of the Level 4 autonomous capability, Ithe Embark spokesman said.

In the short term, Embark safety drivers will work with Knight-Swift drivers to train them on how to oversee the autonomous system. Knight-Swift drivers will get training similar that of Embark drivers, including a thorough education of the technology stack, driving behavior and monitoring techniques.

Once trained, Knight-Swift drivers will be behind the wheel, hauling Knight-Swift loads and directed by Knight-Swift dispatchers. Knight-Swift mechanics will maintain the trucks as part of existing operations. 

The transfer program will help Knight-Swift determine how best to use its drivers, when to have drivers haul loads alongside autonomous trucks or when to have drivers team drive with the Embark Driver, which is not subject to hours of service regulations.

During the pilot, Embark will use Guardian, its cloud-based remote fleet management system, to monitor and dispatch the trucks. Embark plans to deliver the first Embark Driver-equipped trucks to Knight-Swift by the end of 2022.

The FreightWaves Top 500 For-Hire Carriers list includes Knight-Swift (No. 3). 

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Click for more FreightWaves articles by Alan Adler

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.