Embark says its initial autonomous vehicle control system will focus on weather-friendly routes with high freight volumes. Photo: Embark

Embark says its initial autonomous vehicle control system will focus on weather-friendly routes with high freight volumes. Photo: Embark

The conversation in trucking has moved beyond debating if autonomous vehicle technology will be applied to commercial vehicles to pondering what the timeline for driverless trucks will be and how comprehensive those systems will be.

Embark is a Silicon Valley-based technology developer that is developing a truck-specific approach to autonomous driving. COO Mike Reid said Embark will address many of the immediate personnel issues in trucking today – and may even create jobs as in-home grocery and last-mile deliveries heat up in the coming months.

Reid, in an exclusive interview with HDT, said that there is “no question” the advent of autonomous vehicle technology will fundamentally change how fleets operate – and that Embark is focusing its initial autonomous vehicle systems to capitalize on those changes.

He said Embark is currently working on a deep-learning autonomous vehicle system that will focus exclusively on dedicated long-haul trucking corridors as a way to introduce the technology with immediate value for early adopters.

That’s why, according to Reid, Embark’s first autonomous vehicle system will be designed to take a semi-truck on long highway runs, with human drivers slipping behind the wheel at “transition points” off the highway to take the trucks into distribution centers, where freight can be offloaded and put on vehicles better suited for urban and last-mile delivery routes.

“A truck running on a long, boring 1,500-mile route is also operating in an environment where its exposure to the number of different and dynamic driving scenarios is seriously constrained,” Reid said. In other words, even at highway speeds, there’s simply a lot less going on that the vehicle’s autonomous control has to anticipate, track, and contend with than in a stretch of urban traffic with pedestrians, bicyclists, congestion, and all the other variables there that come into play.

And instead of developing an autonomous vehicle control system that is simply released onto American streets and expected to deal with the infinite number of variables that human drivers deal with on a daily basis, Reid said Embark will focus on both a retrofit and a new, OEM-spec system that is focused on very specific truck routes with favorable weather conditions and high freight volumes.

“The software ‘brain’ on these trucks will be capable of running these predetermined routes, providing value for fleets from the outset,” he said.

Reid said the result will be a truck that is capable of taking on jobs in a market segment that is proving difficult for fleets to recruit drivers for, while improving their bottom lines. “Our business case to the fleets for our autonomous technology is very simple,” he said. “What if every driver on that route drove their truck like your absolute best driver day in and day out in terms of speed limits, fuel economy, braking, turning, and overall safety? We think those are the sorts of things that will really appeal to fleets – superior vehicle performance with more efficient operations.”

And, Reid noted, dedicated long-haul autonomous technology would allow fleets to shift human drivers away from stressful, hard-to-full routes and instead employ them in urban and last-mile jobs that get them home every night. “There are a lot of issues in play, from legislation to the average age of the current driver pool that make us think we’ll see autonomous vehicles begin to play a role in the trucking industry sooner, rather than later,. 

Embark recently announced that it has partnered with Peterbilt as well as Ryder System, and Reid said the company is in the process  of proving out its autonomous vehicle concept with commercialization to follow “as soon as possible.”