Attendees of the 2022 American Trucking Associations’ annual meeting in San Diego in October got to see a number of trucks on display with autonomous technology — including Paccar for the first time showing the results of its joint development with Aurora on Kenworth and Peterbilt trucks.
HDT followed up with a conversation with Stephan Olsen, general sales manager for Kenworth, to talk about the state of that relationship and how the OEM plans on further developing self-driving trucks.
HDT: Kenworth turned heads at ATA with the autonomous T680 on display on its booth. What does this truck say about where things stand with Kenworth and its autonomous technology partner Aurora?
Olsen: To give your readers a little background on this partnership, Paccar and Kenworth have been working with Aurora since 2021, developing a relationship intended to bring an autonomous line-haul truck to market. And our shared core objective has been to do that with safety at the forefront. We have an active team of Kenworth engineers and project managers who are working hand-in-glove with Aurora engineers on a daily basis — because it really does take a team of dedicated engineers from both companies to integrate autonomous driving technology into a vehicle platform. And at ATA, we showed excellent evidence that we are making great progress toward that goal.
HDT: What attracted Kenworth to Aurora as a technology partner?
Olsen: First off, it’s important to understand that Kenworth, as a part of Paccar, enjoys a first-class seat at the forefront of the trucking technology table thanks to our Innovation Center in Silicon Valley, California. Thanks to the work Paccar has done there — and continues to do — we’ve forged a solid understanding of what it takes to drive autonomous technology forward. And that helped us to form a strategy — tied in with massive investments and engineering efforts — that led us to choose to work with Aurora. There are many reasons we chose Aurora. They have excellent leadership and experienced staff. They’ve been working on autonomous technology since its earliest days. They have a great culture that is focused on safety. And that is exactly what we were looking for in an autonomous technology partner.
HDT: The T680 at ATA was equipped with the Level 4 Aurora Drive system, correct?
Olsen: Yes. I will tell you that our long-term effort at Kenworth, Paccar and Aurora is to eventually develop and deliver a Level 4 truck with full self-driving technology. But that will take time. Right now, we are focused on developing this technology safely. The sensor technology on the truck at ATA is not necessarily appropriate for a full Level 4 autonomous truck. But the intent was to show where Kenworth and Aurora are today with this technology.
HDT: Recently, it seems that the thrust behind autonomous truck technology has shifted away from full-blown self-driving trucks to more of a focus and complement to advanced driver safety systems. Is that the case with this T680?
Olsen: Again, our core objective is to develop this technology safely. And that means developing a robust control interface and the necessary redundant systems — steering, braking, power generation, for example. Those technologies aren’t available yet on a scale that can be integrated into today’s trucks. Our mission is to eventually develop a fully self-driving truck. But it’s important to understand that the development of autonomous technology in trucking will be a marathon and not a sprint.
HDT: Which brings up the most common question we always get asked: When will that happen?
Olsen: We’re not really marching toward a specific timeline. We’re marching toward the goals of safety and performance. I’ll be the first guy to tell you the technology is not ready to take the training wheels off yet and send trucks out without a driver behind the wheel. But we’re getting there. I think we’re on pace to do this in the appropriate manner.
HDT: What was the reaction to the T680 on display from ATA attendees?
Olsen: There is certainly a lot of interest in this technology in the industry. Many people are reading stories in the press and are aware of the research and testing activities that are going on. There was a lot of excitement to that prototype truck with a well-integrated sensor set. And it showed the customers that Kenworth is seriously invested in this partnership with Aurora. Customers told us they’re very interested in understanding how this technology will work in their operations and with their current driver pool. In fact, given the driver shortage, I’d say there’s tremendous interest from fleets.
HDT: What were your own, personal, impressions, from riding in the Kenworth-Aurora autonomous truck?
Olsen: I’ve been an engineer with Kenworth for 25 years and I’ve seen a lot of new technology come to market in that time. It was really exciting for me to see this technology operating at this level today. This is something I would not have expected to 10 or 15 years ago. But, the other realization I had was that there is still of lot of opportunity to be explored with this technology — in terms of freight capacity, for example. And we need to understand what kind of opportunities this technology will present for drivers and customers. So, we still have a lot of work to do. But again, we are going to keep safety as the top priority as we continue that development process.
Updated Dec. 29 at 11:03 a.m. CT to correct that the T680 at ATA was equipped with a Level 4 Aurora Drive system.
Updated Jan. 18, 2023, to correct Stephan Olsen's title. He is general sales manager, not general manager. We apologize for the error.