Solution to trucker shortage: Self-driving trucks?

Home Featured Post Solution to trucker shortage: Self-driving trucks?

self-driving trucksBy Ken Ryan—Could the solution to the massive truck driver shortage be self-driving trucks? Some investors seem to think so as they have poured $11 billion into autonomous truck startups in the past two and a half years, including over $5 billion in the first five months of 2021, according to the data and research company PitchBook.

Traditional truck manufacturers and carriers are signing deals with tech companies, signaling optimism in the self-driving future. Observers say the pandemic showed just how vital trucking and logistics are to the economy.

“This is a snowball effect, and building steadily,” said Don Burnette, co-founder and CEO of Kodiak Robotics, a self-driving truck startup, which recently announced investments from BMW i Ventures and tire maker Bridgestone.

The makers of self-driving trucks are focusing on highways, which are generally wide and smooth, with steady traffic flow. They anticipate staging drivers at exits to handle the more challenging local streets.

The American Trucking Association said shippers paid $791 billion to move goods by truck in 2019. The makers of self-driving trucks say their technology will save shippers money. The company Embark said its self-driving technology, which it hopes to sell to fleet operators as a subscription, will save $0.80 per mile, cutting costs, compared to human-driven trucks, in half. Human drivers might continue to handle short-haul trucking jobs, the companies say, a more localized job that will allow them to spend more time at home rather than on the road.

The company Plus, which is testing self-driving trucks in China and the U.S., said its first trucks will help human drivers do their job more safely, and will collect data as they go. By 2024, the company said it hopes to put that data to work when it pulls the human from the car. The process will “take some time,” said David Liu, founder and CEO.

Recent investor enthusiasm reflects the newfound importance of logistics amid pandemic-related disruptions, including traffic jams at ports and driver shortages that led to shipping delays. “It’s the ‘Amazon effect,’ where everyone got comfortable getting everything delivered with the click of a button,” said Jim Scheinman, managing partner of seed-stage venture firm Maven Ventures, which has invested in start-up Embark.

And yet, there’s still not a true driverless truck—and may never be. Truck driving is one of the deadliest jobs in the U.S., according to the Labor Department. Because self-driving trucks are massive and go faster than cars on city streets, they need to be able to see farther down the road—no small technical feat. So far, companies have run limited demonstrations and pilots of their technology, but all have had safety drivers in the cab.

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Oct. 25/Nov. 1, 2021

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