So, where did all the autonomous trucks go?

February 19, 2021

John Bendel

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Notice the word “autonomous” is slowly vanishing from discussions about driverless trucks?

“Autonomous” is how Daimler described its first self-driving trucks in public demonstrations almost seven years ago. Daimler shunned the words “driverless” and “self-driving.” An autonomous Freightliner or Western Star would never be without a driver, Daimler stressed, because this technology was not about replacing drivers. It was about safety.

The spokesperson would use the word “safety” half-a-dozen times during a spiel. Sure, the driver may be tele-marketing or watching the eternal reruns of “I Love Lucy” back in the sleeper, but there will always be a driver, we were assured.

Let’s be real: self-driving trucks attract lots of investment for one reason, and it isn’t safety. Sure, safety may be a benefit, but the real payoff is in moving freight without paying a driver. Driverless or self-driving are the terms you hear these days, particularly from newer players in the automated driving space.

Daimler still uses the term “autonomous” or “automated driving,” but they’re serious in the pursuit of drivers’ seats without drivers in them.

In fact, Daimler has formed the Autonomous Technology Group within the company to gather its worldwide resources to that end.

Newcomers aren’t shy about referring to the driverless future they’re trying to build. For example, CEO Don Burnette of Kodiak Robotics, which is testing 10 automated trucks – with backup drivers – said his company still has a way to go before deploying a truck without a driver, “but that is the goal,” he told Transport Topics. Kodiak was founded and entered the automated truck race in 2018.

That same year, a Chinese-American company called TuSimple emerged. TuSimple is working with American truckload carriers including Schneider National, Werner Enterprises, and US Xpress to further automate truck driving. At least one TuSimple truck on the company’s website is clearly labeled “self-driving truck.” TuSimple isn’t taking its time either. The company has said it expects its trucks to be running “fully driverless routes” as early as this year.

Another startup that emerged in 2018 is called Ike, the nickname for President Dwight Eisenhower, who launched the Interstate highway system in 1956. The Ike website includes a diagram showing their vision of driverless trucks in actual use. You see two sets of local roads connected by a straight line representing the interstate linehaul. Linehaul connects to local streets at each end at places labeled “handoff.”

In Ike’s vision, driverless trucks work the interstate picking up and dropping trailers at the handoff spots sited at strategic Interstate interchanges.

An old-timer in the driverless truck race – it was founded in 2015 – Embark makes its goal clear in a video that greets you on its website. You see a truck tooling down a two-lane highway in the desert without a driver – including a shot from inside the cab of an empty driver’s seat. It looks downright ghostly.

Embark operates self-driving trucks commercially along the I-10 corridor between Phoenix and Los Angeles, always with a safety driver. The Silicon Valley startup may be the first to bring the driverless handoff idea to reality. The company says it intends to establish handoff yards close by the Interstates in those two cities.

Virtually all driverless truck startups see the first use of driverless trucks in a similar manner – doing linehaul between handoff locations. They will save money for shippers by taking away miles that drivers are currently paid for.

As we know from Daimler’s work, not all driverless truck developers are startups. Virtually all OEMs are working on driverless vehicles. They tend to get less media coverage, though, probably because as big corporations they’re more circumspect when it comes to publicity. As a result, it’s hard to know for sure just how far self-driving technology has advanced.

In any case, truly driverless trucks will almost certainly be seen in handoff-to-handoff use between points on the interstates within the next few years.

We’re not talking about always having a driver in the truck anymore. LL

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John Bendel is Land Line’s contributing editor-at-large. A former trucker, former editor at National Lampoon and two trucking magazines, John is an author, photographer, and freelancer. His work has appeared in the New York Times, The Washington Post, and many U.S. newspapers.