Waymo, Uber, Starsky, Embark and Tesla Autonomous Class 8 come out of stealth mode

  (Photo: Shutterstock)

(Photo: Shutterstock)

You’d have to be living on a pig farm and completely cut off from the Internet and TV not to have heard all about the autonomous hub bub.

Uber’s autonomous trucks have been transporting cargo for commercial freight customers across Arizona’s highways for several months in “stealth.” But suddenly, according to TechCrunch, Uber has created cargo transfer terminals within the state and they're ready for the public to know. Human drivers bring freight to the terminals, where it is loaded aboard self-driving trucks for the portion of the route that involves highways. Then it is transferred back to trucks driven by human drivers to be delivered to local warehouses. This is one model of how the "human touch" for last mile delivery.

Not to be outdone, Elon Musk reminded everyone that the Tesla Semi is in beta mode, and there have been multiple sightings reported across various social media channels. While work progresses on the Tesla Semi ahead of the start of production in 2019, two of the electric tractors are now hauling battery packs from the Gigafactory in Sparks, Nevada, to the Tesla factory in Fremont, California.

Starsky Robotics claims to be “the only autonomous truck team with a product,” and announced last week that “we drove a truck 7 miles fully unmanned. No safety driver behind the wheel, no engineer hiding on the bunk. We are the first company to make driverless trucks reality.” While the “first” claim isn’t grounded in reality, the technology is happening exponentially faster than many still believe.

It does seem a little strange that the rash of announcements and publicity for these Class 8 autonomous LV 4 trucks follows the ATA’s Technology and Maintenance Council 2018 annual meeting. The ATA’s Chris Spears said “technology is cool,” and that the industry needs to embrace it more and not fear the changes, but they also tempered expectations of what we should be on the lookout for over the next year. The basic outline of numerous panels and discussions focused on themes of "one step at a time" and "we're working on government regulation policy," and this year it'll be "LV 1 and 2 platooning."

Specifically, right now this is through the Self-Drive Act and AV Start Act. The Self-Drive Act has been passed in the House of Representatives. It expands the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) exemption authority, provides federal preemption protection, and requires safety assessment letters. It does not, however, include commercial vehicles.

The AV START Act has passed out of the Commerce Committee, and is awaiting action in full Senate. It expands NHTSA exemption authority. As Spears said in his remarks, the 2.0 version of the bill did not include trucks and this concerned many in the industry. The 3.0 version will include commercial vehicles. The act has run into some recent issues, as 27 representatives from various public interest groups have urged a retooling of the act.

The U.S. DOT is also actively working with the NHTSA and FMCSA to anticipate regulatory barriers and reviewing autonomous testing procedures. Meanwhile, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) is seeking input on infrastructure needs. The U.S. DOT plans for release of an AV 3.0 guidance document later this year.

So, there are essentially two bills that either (1) aren’t going anywhere or (2) don’t have anything specifically to do with commercial freight. Meanwhile, startups, under pressure from competitors and obligations to their investors, are getting all the permits and requirements they need at the local and state levels and pushing the autonomous freight dream forward.

“Over the past year, we’ve been conducting road tests of Waymo’s self-driving trucks in California and Arizona,” Waymo wrote on Medium. “Our software is learning to drive big rigs in much the same way a human driver would after years of driving passenger cars. The principles are the same, but things like braking, turning, and blind spots are different with a fully-loaded truck and trailer.”

The trucks will include professional drivers in the cabs to monitor systems and take control of the vehicle should the need arise, the company said.

“This pilot, in partnership with Google’s logistics team, will let us further develop our technology and integrate it into the operations of shippers and carriers, with their network of factories, distribution centers, ports and terminals,” Waymo said.

Somewhat lost in all the hype is the fact that a month ago tech startup, Embark, completed a test run from Los Angeles to Jacksonville, FL, which the company hailed as the first coast-to-coast journey by an automated truck. Their trucks use a combination of cameras, radar and lidar to track the vehicle’s environment, as well as a form of artificial intelligence to process the data captured by the sensors.

Perhaps the "new blood" to the trucking industry is exactly what is needed: a shot in the arm. Just as Starsky and others lead with in their excitement, the great likelihood in both the short and long-term is that these are solutions for drivers, not a method of displacement.


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