Self-driving trucking company Embark closed out a $70 million series C funding round this week, announcing it would use the cash to fund, among other things, freight transfer hubs in Los Angeles and Phoenix.
According to a company blog post , the hubs will, “provide a common location for local drivers to deliver freight where we can stage and inspect trailers before our automated trucks drive them across the country.” The post said the company has designed the hubs to enable drivers to pick up or drop off loads as seamlessly as possible between a traditional truck or an Embark vehicle without requiring drivers or distribution centers to change their workflow. For this reason, the hubs are located off major highways versus more urban areas.
Five unnamed Fortune 500 companies have already signed onto the Los Angeles-Phoenix route, the post said. According to previous reporting, Amazon has been spotted using Embark vehicles. Embark does not list its customers on its website.
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The hub system will act as a link between trucks leaving warehouses in urban areas and autonomous Embark trucks that will handle the middle mile of the trip, once that leg is complete, the trucks will stop at a second transfer hub and switch the load back to a traditional truck.
At each of the hubs, an Embark Hub Technician “performs docking, pre-trip inspection, and other responsibilities of a long-haul driver” before clearing the Embark vehicle for departure, according to the company’s post .
The majority of autonomous trucking pilots focus on this middle-mile portion of the journey. The routes are simpler, usually involving long stretches of highway, and are far less complex for a driverless technology to navigate compared to last-mile deliveries in cities or suburban neighborhoods.
Embark trucks currently operate a Level 2 driverless system, meaning they operate with a form of ” adaptive cruise control ” and still require monitoring from a certified driver. The company says its transfer hub corridor between Phoenix and Los Angeles will move the company into Level 4 territory, where vehicles “look for navigational input to know where to drive, but after telling the vehicle where to go, drivers aren’t expected to step in and take the reins,” according to Trucks.com . Autonomous trucks operating at Level 4 should be able to run safety checks and assess driving conditions on their own, eventually eliminating the need for a driver altogether.
In addition to Embark, other driverless trucking companies are taking to the road. UPS and USPS have run pilots with TuSimple on routes in Arizona. TuSimple’s trucks are already Level 4 autonomous , using camera systems, artificial intelligence and other mapping technologies to navigate highways and urban environments and assess potentially dangerous driving conditions. However, according to national law, a certified driver must be present in the vehicle at all times.