Watch Now

Truck Tech: Snowy reception edition

Driverless in the snow; a big boost in electric driving range and a more serious autonomous relationship

Welcome to Truck Tech. Was this forwarded to you? Sign up here to receive the latest news, perspective and context in autonomy, electrification and other trucking technology on Fridays by email.

This week, Embark Trucks tests Level 4 autonomy in the snow; Volvo Trucks boosts the driving range of the VNR Electric to 280 miles; Waymo Via gets engaged to J.B. Hunt; and more.

Let it snow

When developers of driverless trucks talk about “edge” cases — the unusual and unforeseen happenings that can flummox their roboto drivers — they are often referring to rain, fog and glare from the sun.

Autonomous driving in the snow is one of those things that just doesn’t generate much discussion. Until now.

Embark Trucks, one of the startups whose approach to autonomous trucking relies on software applications over a built-from-scratch chassis, is testing its system in the white stuff.

The San Francisco-based Embark (NASDAQ: EMBK) this week said it is developing a roadmap based on its Vision Map Fusion to develop, deploy and demonstrate technology to operate in snowy conditions autonomously by the end of winter 2022. 

If successful, it would allow routes through mountains and other wintry climes. No one is doing that right now. Or at least they are not talking about it. Most efforts at perfecting autonomy are focused on the generally dry and climatologically favorable states in the American Southwest where the sun shines and winds are calm much of the time.

The complex situations and scenarios involved with snow runs are not part of Embark’s target to commercially launch driverless trucks. Its “Roadmap to Driver Out,” revealed last June, is still working to solve five of 16 technology achievements required to deploy Phase I of its technology in the U.S. Sun Belt in 2024. 

It is hard to overstate the difficulty of driving in snow for even the most experienced human drivers, let alone robots. Keeping goods moving in unruly weather is critical to keeping supply chains moving when they are not messed up by a global pandemic.  

Many autonomous trucking companies rely on high-definition maps to navigate the road. That’s fine when the road basically is unchanged day after day. But it’s ineffective when precipitation covers the ground, obscuring lane markings. Using its VMF technology, Embark has been conducting winter road data collection to develop enhanced perception capabilities that would enable the Embark Driver to safely navigate snowy and wet conditions.  

Autonomously driving in snowy conditions is one of the “edge” cases that lie ahead of robot truck developers. Embark Trucks is taking it on. (Photo: Embark Trucks)

Extended range

Even before electric trucks reach the mainstream, which most see happening by the end of the decade, their main limitation — how far they can travel between charges — is part of the calculus.

Most early Class 8 electric trucks offer 100 to 200 miles before needing to plug in. Volvo Trucks this week said the latest version of the VNR Electric daycab will run for up to 275 miles through a combination of improved battery design — up to 40% increase in storage capacity for each battery pack — and two more packs.

The new six-battery option adds weight to the truck, which means less freight-hauling capacity. But where a full truckload isn’t called for, the added weight is a good tradeoff for longer range.

The new Volvo VNR Electric, available in Q2, reduces the required charging time. A 250 kilowatt direct-current (DC) charger can get to 80% state of charge in 90 minutes for the six-battery package, and 60 minutes for the four-battery version.

Two new configurations join the lineup — a 6×4 straight truck and a 6×4 tractor. Volvo Truck North America currently offers a: 4×2 tractor, 6×2 tractor, and single-axle straight truck. The trucks are still aimed at local and regional distribution ranges, such as food and beverage, drayage, and pick-up and delivery routes.

Globally, Volvo Truck (OTC: VLVLY) is committed to 50% of its trucks running on electricity by 2030. It was an early mover, beginning commercial production in 2019. Today, it offers six battery-electric models. Its joint venture with rival Daimler Truck will produce hydrogen-powered fuel cell electric trucks for both manufacturers in the second half of the decade.

The Volvo VNR Electric gets two new configurations, including a 6X4 version, with more energy storage – and additional batteries – to increase its range to up to 275 miles between charges. (Photo: Volvo Trucks)

Getting engaged

Some casual dating between autonomous truck developer Waymo Via and J.B. Hunt Transport is getting more serious. Waymo and J.B. Hunt completed their first trial runs last year moving freight along Interstate 45 in Texas. Upcoming pilots will take place in the same lane. 

The two are entering into a long-term, strategic alliance to commercialize autonomous driving technology. Waymo Via intends for J.B. Hunt to be its first launch partner for freight movement when it deploys fully autonomous operations in Texas the next few years. Unlike competitors targeting 2024 to launch driverless trucks, Waymo has not called out a specific year.

Eventually, Waymo Via expects to explore a technology integration with J.B. Hunt (NASDAQ: JBHT) and J.B. Hunt 360.

“Our pilot last year with Waymo Via really helped us get a hands-on understanding of how autonomous driving technology could be implemented within our operations,” said Craig Harper, J.B. Hunt chief sustainability officer.

“Autonomous driving technology will help us create the most efficient transportation network in North America, and our collaboration with Waymo VIa is a pivotal step towards fulfilling that mission.”

Waymo Via and J.B. Hunt will build onto a 2021 pilot through a long-term autonomous freight-hauling agreement. (Photo: Waymo Via)

Quote of the week

“I attribute it to the green sustainability image the companies now realize needs to be part of their plan. They need to make sure they’re doing what’s right. There’s a branding opportunity for customers who go green. It’s good publicity and there are a lot of companies looking to capitalize on that.”

Hank Johnson, Kenworth Trucks vocational and medium duty general sales manager

Best of the rest

Customers for the Nikola Tre battery-electric truck now qualify for up to a $120,000 voucher under the California Hybrid and Zero-Emission Truck and Bus Voucher Incentive Project (HVIP). Nikola (NASDAQ: NKLA) has a grant writer standing by to help with the paperwork there and in other states offering spiffs for buying electric trucks.

Engineering and strategic consultant Ricardo is leading a federal program to deliver a high power, high efficiency, silicon-carbide inverter and integrated compact electronic drive unit for a dual-axle Class 8 truck at the Port of Long Beach in California in the next 12 months. The 800-volt is expected to achieve 98.5% efficiency.

Ricardo leads a Department of Energy charging efficiency project. (Photo: Ricardo)

Lion Electric Co. (NYSE: LEV) has moved into its production facility in Joliet, Illinois. The Canada-based manufacturer of electric medium and heavy-duty trucks and buses expects the first vehicles to come off the production line in the second half of this year.

Autonomous truck developer and Daimler Truck independent subsidiary Torc Robotics is adding a third location in Austin, Texas. The 21,000 square-foot engineering center joins its test center in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and its headquarters in Blacksburg, Virginia.

 That’s it for this week. Thanks for reading.


The FREIGHTWAVES TOP 500 For-Hire Carriers list includes J.B. Hunt (No. 4).

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.