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This startup sees the highways filled with self-driving big rigs

This startup sees the highways filled with self-driving big rigs

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Alex Rodrigues and the team at Embark, a startup coming out of stealth today, want to change how we move freight across the country. Currently, tractor-trailer trucks, driven by more than 1.6 million drivers, carry 60 percent of freight moved in the United States. Embark instead sees a future where robot trucks move freight across the country and around the world.

Embark’s first truck, a Peterbilt, arrived in Nevada in August of last year and the company has been testing and refining its system ever since. The company’s small staff, only a few dozen in size currently, took the truck and equipped it with a boatload of self-driving sensors and other equipment, and is currently in intense testing and development.

Rodrigues' company isn't the only one trying to make a change in long-haul freight: a number of startups, including Uber's Otto, have also targeted the sector. “We chose this industry because it’s focused and it has an immense scale and impact on everyday lives,” said Rodrigues in an interview with The Verge this week. “Trucking was the place to make a difference.”

Photo: Embark

The plan is to have trucks drive themselves from exit to exit across long distances, with a human driver taking over for final deliveries in more complicated areas. Highway driving is much more predictable than chaotic cities, and that predictability makes it easier to program for.

“Our vehicle is intended to be limited in scope,” Rodrigues said. “It’s only meant to drive on freeways, not to handle cities or traffic lights or anything like that.”

highways are more predictable than chaotic urban streets

He believes that Embark will be able to have a truck drive itself 100 percent reliably in all situations on a highway much sooner than its competitors working on self-driving cars will be able to handle driving in a busy city. On a highway, for example, it’s extremely likely that people will either stay in their lane or perform a lane change — and that’s it. Compared to a city, there’s little risk of a pedestrian walking across the road or a car heading directly toward the vehicle.

Of course, those situations will exist, and the truck will need to know how to handle them, but “the structure of freeway driving is fixed so it’s easy to understand what everyone else is doing,” said Rodrigues.

He also believes that an autonomous truck driver would be particularly good at tasks that are challenging for humans, like how to drive on slippery roads or on steep hills. “It’s probably better than the average human because it can react quickly,” he said. “And it’s always paying attention.”

Photo: Embark

Most important for the trucking industry is that a robot truck driver would not need to stop for mandatory rest breaks, or even such mundane tasks as eating and using the restroom. At the moment, trucks are designed to have around 12 hours worth of fuel: any more than that and you’re hauling around unnecessary weight because a truck driver can refuel when they stop to rest for the night. But a self-driving truck could carry all the fuel it needs to get from start point to its final destination, driving continuously until it arrives.

That means trucks will be on the road for more of the time (helping make the big rigs themselves more profitable), and it would mean faster delivery times as loads wouldn’t be stationary once they’ve departed.

truck drivers won’t be replaced entirely

But Embark doesn’t plan to replace truck drivers entirely. The plan is that human drivers will take over from the autonomous truck at prepositioned staging areas outside of cities, just off the highway. This human touch will handle delivery and pickup of freight between the staging area and the destination.

“Our expectation is that the salary for truck drivers will go up,” Rodrigues said, because the job will become more skilled. “Interactions with the customer, individual pick up and drop off, and the harder parts of truck driving” will become more important than driving hundreds of miles per day down the interstate.

Embark doesn’t want to build trucks itself, or even handle the self-driving hardware. Instead, it wants to handle the software and the platform. “We see our specialty as being software and data and being the network that underlies the system,” Rodrigues said.

Embark is in touch with truck manufacturers and suppliers to eventually build trucks that can run its software. Embark’s customers would deliver a truck and freight to a staging area, where the company would take over. It would handle everything from what route to take to working with maintenance companies to repair the truck if it needs it. “When a truck is operating on the highway, we’re responsible for it,” said Rodrigues.

Embark raised its seed round from several investors including Maven Ventures, which also invested in self-driving startup Cruise Automation, acquired by GM last year. The company wouldn’t divulge the size of the round, but said it plans to triple the size of its staff over the next eight months.

when a truck is on the highway, embark is responsible for it

“The big thing for us is going to be hiring more people,” said Rodrigues. “We’re scaling up really aggressively and bringing on more people to really get into every nook and cranny of the edge cases.”

“We want to get the truck to a point where it can operate reliably over millions of miles.”