In a major step toward commercializing autonomous trucking, a Knight-Swift Transportation driver will operate a Class 8 Kenworth T680 tractor embedded with select features of Embark Trucks’ autonomous software under its own authority.
The handoff accomplishes one of Embark’s 2022 milestones, first discussed in February.
Until now, high-autonomy autonomous vehicle developers owned and operated trucks used in testing. Specially trained safety drivers, usually longtime drivers with millions of miles of experience, made sure the trucks performed as intended. Embark started in 2018 with a driving team of two, moved to a single safety driver and is now turning that over to Knight-Swift.
“They’ll be driven from a Knight-Swift customer facility to customer facility [from] LA to Phoenix,” Sam Abidi, Embark’s chief commercial officer, told FreightWaves. “The big idea here is that they’re going to do that on the normal duty cycle. So it’s not pampered such that it leaves at a certain time [and returns] at a certain time.”
Embark’s Truck Transfer Program (TTP) with the nation’s No. 3 for-hire carrier — Knight-Swift has 22,680 tractors — will grow to single digits next year. Embark won’t book revenue immediately. But it is effectively removing the training wheels from robot-driven trucks.
“I am excited to take delivery so our drivers and customers can provide direct feedback on the technology as we use it in day-to-day operations to enable new safety and efficiency in trucking,” Knight-Swift CEO Dave Jackson said in a news release.
Carrier drivers the next step toward driver-out commercialization
Putting carrier fleet drivers behind the wheel is the next step toward commercialization for Embark.
“We must go from prototype to creating a product that can stand on its own within a customer’s fleet,” Embark co-founder and CEO Alex Rodrigues told analysts on the company’s third-quarter earnings call Nov. 8.
Two Knight-Swift drivers are undergoing weeks of classroom, test track and on-road training to learn how to monitor the Embark Universal Interface (EUI)-equipped T680.
“They are going through the same, if not more, rigorous training program than our own drivers do,” Abidi said.
Driverless operation targeted for 2024
Embark targets 2024 to remove the safety driver from the truck. So far, TuSimple is the only competitor to demonstrate a driverless pilot in the U.S., first covering an 80-mile run from Tucson, Arizona, to Phoenix last December.
Full redundancy in steering, braking and other functions in which the driver would be the backup in case of a failure is necessary before removing the driver.
“We’re working towards fully redundant platforms but are not there yet,” Abidi said. “A lot of the componentry from Tier Ones and OEMs is still in development. And for that reason, you end up having a driver behind the wheel during operations.”
Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance inspections will be conducted on the truck before and after every trip, allowing it to bypass weigh stations, which have variations that could flummox a robot driver. CVSA has trained inspectors on how to evaluate autonomous trucks.
Embark helped select the truck to upfit
Embark worked with Knight-Swift to select trucks from its orderbook. Embark worked with Kenworth and Knight-Swift for about six months to validate the hardware add-on, for which it has 14,200 nonbinding reservations through participants in its Partnership Development Program (PDP).
TTP trucks include an improved AV kit with upgrades to critical hardware components designed for maximum uptime in everyday use as well as being easily serviced by fleet maintenance staff with minimal training. While the Embarked-enabled trucks are on the road, Embark Guardian, a combination of cloud-based fleet management software and personnel, monitors and supports the health of the Embark system.
Other features include reduced time to boot up the AV system, making it comparable with preparing a typical truck. The EUI automatically detects trailer presence and weight.
“All of those things are the really tough work that was done to get to this point where it’s not Embark owning, running, dispatching, caring for the truck, but instead [it’s] Knight-Swift,” Abidi said.
Eliminating a pain point of autonomous trucking
Because autonomous trucks perform trillions of calculations per second, they require significant amounts of internet bandwidth. Embark learned through the PDP that one unnamed competitor required a carrier to install additional bandwidth to handle the load.
“Embark developed an intelligent data prioritization system that reduces our bandwidth needs by 95%. This brings total bandwidth needs to within the bounds of a typical industrial site,” Rodrigues said.
“Instead of sending every data point all the time, our system now only sends data associated with specific topics or tags that are critical to technology development and safety,” he said.