“Follow the money,” the old saying goes. And right now, there is a serious glut of cash flowing into the coffers of autonomous truck start-up companies. And perhaps more important, there have been several high-profile partnerships announced between OEMs and autonomous tech companies that indicate the pedal is to the metal on getting this technology ready for prime-time deployment.
Just last week we saw a major announcement from Paccar and tech start-up Aurora, announcing a major global partnership on the autonomous vehicle front. In the very same news cycle, we saw autonomous “unicorn” TuSimple announce an advisory board of major industry players to help guide the company through the many regulatory and public/industry acceptance issues that lie ahead as it fine-tunes its autonomous control systems. This board of advisors includes CEOs from two of the largest truck fleets in the country. And one of them, U.S. Xpress, announced a undisclosed investment in TuSimple as well. So that’s pretty strong indicator that the major fleets, at least, see something very promising in the concept of self-driving trucks hauling freight nationally.
Those announcements were simply the latest in a long time of similar news stories. Daimler Trucks North America recently announced two high-profile autonomous partnerships – one with Waymo. And another with Torc Robotics, which is now actually a part of the Daimler proprietary autonomous R&D team.
Navistar hasn’t been idle, either. The company has leveraged its ever-closer relationship with Volkswagen’s Traton truck group to fund a partnership with TuSimple. Traton, which is rapidly gearing up to compete on a global scale with Daimler and Volvo, has a similar agreement with TuSimple.
So what does all this teaming-up and investing mean?
I think there are a couple of things going on here that explain these trends. The first thing that needs to be noted is that basically five years into the technology rush to get autonomous trucks on the road, everyone has discovered that reaching that goal is a hella lot harder than anyone realized at the outset. Consider for example earlier this month when Waymo CEO John Krafcik told the Financial Times that designing and deploying a viable, commercially available, autonomous truck is a feat on par with launching rockets into space.
So, clearly, this is a technology push that requires the very best engineers and experts from both the OEM and start-up side of the technology streams.
At the same time, regardless of how good their tech teams may be, there is clearly a vast ocean of knowledge regarding commercial vehicles – particularly Class 8 trucks – and the customers and markets those vehicles serve, that the start-up development firms know little or nothing about. They clearly need the OEMs (and the fleets) to help them develop autonomous systems that don’t just simply work, but work well, and solve the specific problems that fleets hope to resolve with this technology – all in a durable, reliable, and safe way.
As these new partnerships leave their “honeymoon” phases behind and settle in to make real progress on autonomous trucks, it seems likely that we will see dramatic new advances in the near future, bringing us ever closer to the day when these trucks will indeed be ready to transform the trucking industry in ways we are only just beginning to consider.