Google, Ford, Tesla, and other leading car companies are racing to put self-driving vehicles on the market. In the meantime, they’re not the only organizations looking to change the future of vehicles with self-driving tech. A series of new startups have tapped into the market to create self-driving semi-trucks.
With self-driving trucks, companies would be able to save significantly on the cost of shipping goods and services. It would also increase safety and reduce the number of semi-truck-related accidents on public roads.
The Biggest Startups in the Industry
The first major startup interested in autonomous trucks began as a company called Otto. It was co-founded by Anthony Levandowski, a former Google engineer who worked on their autonomous vehicle project before starting his own company. Before long, Uber recognized the potential of this organization and acquired it to boost their research. The organization is looking to be the first to put self-driving trucks on the market.
Otto is the biggest player in the driverless trucks market, but it’s not alone.
Embark is another organization with its eye on autonomous semi-trucks. They’re using laser sensors, cameras, LiDAR, and machine learning to produce software that will make vehicles go on their own. Their approach is similar to Tesla, and they’re using roads in Nevada and California to test their products.
Alex Rodrigues, Embark’s co-founder, says their mission is to improve the trucking industry. “We want to focus on trucking as opposed to cars because we think this is an area with an acute problem to solve, namely a shortage of long-haul drivers,” Rodrigues said to USA Today. “No one really wants to be away from home for long periods of time, and there’s a 10x turnover rate for those drivers compared to people who work locally.”
Drive.ai has the tech in place, and they’re soliciting municipalities to allow local deliveries to test their products in limited California areas. It will give them insights into the effectiveness of their products without potentially sacrificing the safety of a city’s residents.
Starsky Robotics from the Silicon Valley is another up and coming organization that has managed to raise more than $3.75 million for their autonomous trucking project. They’ll begin testing shortly, with humans in the cab in case anything goes wrong. They’re seeking permission from Michigan, Nevada, and Florida to both test and gain commission from their truck shipments.
Other corporations, like Daimler and Volvo have entered the driverless trucking market, but haven’t made as much progress as some of these startups.
Will Driverless Trucking Eliminate Jobs?
Like in all autonomous vehicle manufacturing, there’s always concern that removing the driver will take away jobs. It’s true that the need for truck drivers will be drastically reduced if this tech comes to fruition, but it won’t have the drastic effect that some people fear.
Co-founder of Starsky Robotics Stefan, Seltz-Axmacher, says their goal is not to take jobs away, but rather to provide better and safer jobs. They’ll receive higher pay and get more satisfaction out of the job.
“We’re not anti-trucker,” Seltz-Axmacher said to Overdrive Online. “A lot of Silicon Valley-types are barely ever talking to anyone who’s ever spent any time on the road. Our sixth employee was a truck driver. We came at this from a trucking-first perspective rather than a technology-first perspective. We’re this uncomfortable mix of a trucking company and a technology company.”
He goes on to explain that their tech will create new jobs in the form of remote steerers. The driver will sit in an office and tell the self-driving vehicle where to go, and perform troubleshooting if a problem arises.
“Think of it as a really boring video game. It’s a truck simulator, but with an actual vehicle,” Seltz-Axmacher says. “You’re turning a steering wheel. You’re working the pedals. You basically drive the truck like you would fly a drone.”
As Embark’s Rodrigues pointed out, there’s high turnover in the trucking industry, and these startups are hopeful that their products will create much better jobs in this market.
Jobs Safe For Now
People who work for trucking companies don’t have anything to worry about right now. Despite growing interest in a self-driving trucking platform, it will likely be more than a decade before autonomous trucks hit the market. They must be tested to perfection and certain legislation must be passed in order to ensure safety in driverless vehicles – all of this can take years. What’s more, it may be several more decades before trucking companies, especially small and mid-size organizations, adopt autonomous vehicles on a mass scale. This tech will be very expensive, and most organizations will find it’s more feasible to pay a truck driver than it will be to purchase a self-driving vehicle.
In all, the innovation is exciting, and it may change the way of shipping forever. However, adoption will be slow, and it will take some time for such a well-oiled machine to change its ways so drastically.