A Waymo Via truck.
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- Autonomous tech will likely proliferate in the commercial sector first.
- Research and development for self-driving semis is less cost-intensive than robotaxis.
- Some startups are already launching AV trucking lanes.
Investment and interest in autonomous vehicles has lagged behind electric vehicles in recent years, mainly due to cost and safety. But the trucking industry is showing renewed interest in AV tech as it looks for solutions to driver shortages and supply-chain crunches.
Electric vehicles are expected to proliferate among commercial vehicles before widespread consumer adoption. Similarly, self-driving technology will likely first be implemented on a broad scale in the commercial and logistics industries, according to industry executives and experts. It’s a much different use case from self-driving taxis taking passengers to the airport or to work — a futuristic offering that first captured the attention of investors.
Big autonomous-vehicle firms originally focused on robotaxis, like Waymo, are now diverting more efforts to self-driving semis. Meanwhile, several established trucking and logistics companies like Knight-Swift, C.H. Robinson, and Amazon have been partnering with AV startups in recent months, while startups like TuSimple and Kodiak have launched automated-trucking lanes and autonomous-freight deliveries.
Right now, driving lanes dedicated to autonomous-truck testing in the US are concentrated in the West, where longer trucking routes experience less traffic than on the East Coast.
The driving forces behind this shift from taxis to trucks largely boil down to costs, experts say. Big logistics companies are able to make up-front investments in emerging tech designed to simplify their operations. This has become especially important after the supply-chain disruptions and trucker shortages of the past two years.
At the end of last year, the US was experiencing an all-time trucker shortage, with the industry in need of about 80,000 drivers, according to a report from the American Trucking Associations. Autonomous tech can help replace these missing drivers as well as assist existing truckers on longer hauls, according to industry experts.
The research and development necessary for autonomous trucking might also be less cost-intensive than that of robotaxis, according to a recent study of automated trucks and buses conducted by Guidehouse Insights. Generally predictable shipping routes make the tech “well suited to automation” because the costs of development are lower than other, more unpredictable applications, the report said.
“Given the capacity-related disruption in the supply chain over the last two years we are not surprised to see interest in technology driven solutions accelerate,” the Morgan Stanley analyst Ravi Shanker wrote in a recent note. “We also believe the acceleration of interest from incumbents reinforces our view that AV technology is indeed ‘real.'”
Here’s a look at five of the most promising firms piling into the autonomous-trucking industry.
Founded in 2018 by Don Burnette, a former member of Google’s original self-driving team, Kodiak focuses its autonomous-driving efforts solely on long-haul trucking. The company is developing a technology stack that is purpose-built for long-haul trucks. Its modular hardware, which can be removed with a few bolts, is also designed to create less disruption in trucking yards.
A privately held company, Kodiak is based in Mountain View, California. It most recently became the first company to deliver freight autonomously in Oklahoma, through a partnership with Ceva Logistics.
TuSimple has the backing of the logistics giant UPS, which has a minority stake in the company. Founded in 2018, the startup is focused on developing and deploying Level 4 autonomy, which does not require human interaction, for long-haul and heavy-duty trucks.
The startup debuted on the Nasdaq in April 2021, raising $1.35 billion on 33.8 million shares priced at $40. Its share price has experienced more volatility in recent months amid executive turnovers that surprised investors, and it now trades at about $12.30 a share.
In 2020, Google’s self-driving car division, Waymo, split its teams into two camps. Waymo One would work on robotaxi offerings, while Waymo Via would focus on autonomous-delivery options, including semis.
Waymo Via has been developing a self-driving semi since 2017, originally using the same sensors and technology it used in the Chrysler Pacificas it retrofitted for taxi rides. Waymo is collaborating with Daimler Trucks on a fully autonomous system for long-haul trucks. Through a new partnership between Waymo Via and the trucking giant C.H. Robinson, Waymo’s autonomous truck is set to begin testing in Texas.
Founded in Silicon Valley in 2016, Plus is developing technology for commercial fleets and self-driving trucks. Last summer, Amazon placed an order for 1,000 autonomous-driving systems from Plus and acquired the option to buy a stake of up to 20% of the startup.
Before the investment from Amazon, Plus had announced it would go public through a special-purpose acquisition company in the third quarter of 2021. Those plans were eventually called off, and Plus is still a privately held company.
Embark builds software for trucking firms looking to integrate autonomous trucks into their fleets. Since it was founded in 2016, Embark has partnered with big-name carriers like Werner Enterprises, Bison Transport, and Mesilla Valley Transportation. The startup puts an emphasis on working with partners in the trucking industry rather than competing with them.
Embark went public in November, after a $5.2 billion SPAC deal. In its first public earnings report, Embark said it had posted a $76.4 million loss in the fourth quarter of last year. Shares in the company trade at about half of Embark’s opening share price of $10.