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The start-ups seeking success in autonomous trucking

As the commercial vehicle industry prepares for the arrival of self-driving trucks, numerous start-ups are looking to get involved – but will they be able to keep pace? By Xavier Boucherat

While most of the narrative about autonomous drive technology is focused on passenger cars, the likelihood is that it is in trucking, rather than in passenger cars, that self-drive technology will first be adopted.

Highways, where heavy trucks spend most their time, are far less complex environments than built-up urban areas, and the technology required to navigate them autonomously is, to some extent, already available in cars such as Tesla’s Model S. What’s more, autonomy has the potential to lower a vehicle’s lifetime total cost of ownership (TCO), and is likely to prove a more economically attractive prospect for fleet operators than for passenger car buyers.

Megatrends Q3 - start-ups - UberAutonomous driving technology is currently much more applicable to the truck sector than to cars for a variety of reasons, says Sandeep Kar, Chief Strategy Officer at Fleet Complete, a global commercial vehicle IoT solutions provider. Autonomous driving can not only increase fleet and vehicle safety, and reduce operating expenses such as fuel and maintenance, he notes, but it can also create income generation possibilities for drivers and fleets through initiatives such as Uber for trucks.

Making headlines

Nonetheless, the technical challenges for truck manufacturers are considerable, and agile tech start-ups are now scrambling to bring solutions to OEMs. Several tech start-ups are currently the subject of considerable attention, with headlines being grabbed by companies such as Starsky Robotics, Peloton Technology, Nikola Motor, TuSimple, Embark and Uber Advanced Technologies Group (which acquired Otto).

There are several unique issues that will require resolution, explains Xiaodi Hou, Chief Technical Officer at self-driving tech company TuSimple.

“In a highway scenario, for example, the focus is on long-range sensing,” he says. “LiDAR is being widely used as a primary sensor, but quite often the maximum range it can achieve is 100 metres. This is not enough for highway driving, particularly for trucks carrying cargo, which require far greater braking distances at any speed.” In addition, truck trailers run passively and do not steer themselves; this presents particular challenges when developing motion control systems which could allow trucks to swerve around obstacles and change lanes when necessary.

Megatrends Q3 - start-ups - TuSimpleSmaller companies may find themselves better equipped to cope with the lightning-quick pace of change in the tech industry, which remains at odds with the conservative nature of global, mass-volume OEMs. Several have tried to adapt, and the automotive industry’s presence in Silicon Valley is more noticeable than ever. But Hou believes the disconnect between Silicon Valley and the traditional automotive industry players creates opportunities for small, innovative tech start-ups.

The complete solution

“Autonomous is a completely new problem,” says Hou. “If you want to solve a problem, you first have to identify it, and this requires collaboration between different groups. Our mapping team is in constant communication with our perception and localisation teams, and unlike the traditional corporate way of doing things, we can be flexible and efficient. Of course, there’s nothing to stop OEMs working the same way we do, but this can’t really involve more than a hundred people, meaning there’s little difference between them and ourselves.”

In other words, autonomous is not a problem that can be solved by simply throwing manpower at it. The challenge for start-ups will be to understand the high demands of the sector. That’s according to David Alexander, Managing Director of commercial vehicle consultancy Truck Technology. “There will be a need for new systems and components to bring automated driving to market,” he says, “but these will need to be fully integrated, tested and validated by OEMs before they’re offered on existing vehicles. Reputations are hard to build and easy to lose.”

Megatrends Q3 - start-ups - Starsky RoboticsThe ones who succeed will be those who can extend the lives of vehicles, and help fleet owners get greater value. TuSimple is offering what it calls ‘the complete solution’, developing everything from HD maps and localisation to motion planning, which enables the truck to swerve around obstacles and change lanes when necessary. At present, suggests Hou, there is no single ‘black box’ that can enable autonomy. Instead, the solution will be more akin to a computer in the 1950s – “you have a crew of people each tending in their own way to a big, room-sized monster. The technology is just not mature enough that it can solve all the logistics of autonomous driving by itself.”

Turnkey solutions

Where TuSimple is taking an holistic approach, others are looking to make ground in the self-driving truck sector by appealing to specific needs of the industry. Starsky Robotics is one, a start-up based in the US where trucking distances mean that truck drivers can find themselves on the road for lengthy periods, sometimes weeks at a time. The company has built a robot which, along with enabling autonomous driving down highways, allows drivers to remotely perform the tight, precise driving done in the first and last mile of a journey, such as delivery yards and depots. This could allow drivers to spend more time with their families, and help reduce fatalities on the road – in the US in 2015, 745 drivers were killed on the job.

Another name is Peloton Technology, a start-up dedicated to enabling on-highway platooning, in which electronically connected self-driving trucks will be able to safely follow each other at small distances to reduce air-drag, and thus increase fuel efficiency. Peloton plans to roll out its initial technology in late 2017, which will handle acceleration and braking tasks, leaving drivers to steer. As autonomy increases, steering too could be made autonomous. This has the potential to help solve worldwide truck-driver shortages – one driver in a lead vehicle could plausibly lead a platoon of driverless trucks.

Megatrends Q3 - start-ups - Peloton start ups technologySome companies have even bigger goals. Nikola Motor plans to begin delivering its own Class 8 zero-emissions trucks at the end of the year, which not only feature a hydrogen-electric powertrain, but autonomous capabilities that will enable hands-free highway driving. This, says Chief Executive Trevor Milton, will free up drivers to plan routes, order food for collection at a particular truck stop, or even watch movies via the vehicle’s 21-inch monitor.

Wanted: start-ups, not upstarts

Nikola Motor’s ambitions are clear, but underline one challenge that all companies moving in on the segment will face – the trust which the world’s largest fleets have built with industry giants like Daimler and Volvo. Large fleet-owners will be wary of companies without an established financial position, says Alexander, and will be reluctant to take on technology that doesn’t come with the OEM’s signature of approval.

“There will definitely be opportunities for technology companies,” he suggests, “but probably only in partnership with major truck OEMs to implement specific systems. Unlike consumer vehicles, commercial vehicles are expected to give reliable service for a decade or more, covering hundreds of thousands of miles. Fleet managers want to be sure they can count on the OEM being around to provide support and spare parts. There will be a small number of purchases of advanced vehicles from new OEMs by large fleets for evaluation, but these tests will run for years before significant orders are placed.”

Megatrends Q3 - start-ups - Embark

Nikola’s Milton is all too aware of the setbacks a smaller outfit like his is likely to face, and the company is exploring alternative ways it could potentially profit from its technology. “Many other countries have reached out and asked how we do what we do,” he previously told Automotive World, “and so we’re beginning to share this technology with other groups in other countries.” Details on distribution deals are unavailable, but Milton is resigned to the fact that Nikola won’t be pushing thousands of units any time soon: “There is no way our company could go and serve a global footprint in the next ten years. It will take five years to market here in the US. We do not want to make the whole world wait 20 years for this technology.”

The future of start-ups in any sector is, by definition, unclear, and whether TuSimple, Starsky or Peloton will master the market is an impossible call to make. Some industry giants have made their intentions clear with acquisitions – in August 2016, Uber acquired the company previously known as Otto for US$680m. The self-driving truck company, headed up by former Google star Anthony Levandowski and since absorbed into Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group, developed its own technology which was introduced to the world in October 2016. A high publicity demo saw a truck hauling a trailer of Budweiser beer drive itself through Colorado. Since then, Waymo has revealed that it too is testing trucks, and a lawsuit filed by the company against Levandowski over stolen trade secrets continues.

Disruption

Megatrends Q3 - start-ups - Nikola MotorUltimately, says Alexander, everyone involved has plenty of work to do to help realise any sort of autonomous vision for trucks. “The key challenge will be dealing with a customer base of professional drivers,” he concludes, “some of whom are literally offended by the idea of needing assistance. First, the fleet managers must be convinced of the benefits of investing in automated driving at Levels 1 and 2, before moving higher. Then the drivers must be trained on how to get the best out of that new technology. It will be important to get all participants on board for maximum results.”

As self-driving technology gains traction, and proliferation of this technology increases in commercial vehicles, notes Fleet Complete’s Kar, advanced sensing, computing, analytics, and machine learning areas will require ground-breaking and fast-moving technology development and evolution. “This will attract several early stage companies and also established companies,” he says, adding, “The potential for upside improvements in efficiencies, effectiveness, safety, security, TCO reduction, and driver workload reduction in trucking is attractive and substantial. This will lead start-up and emerging company activities in trucking to increase in the next several years, ultimately benefiting trucking globally.”

And over those next several years, as the specialist tech start-ups advance their technology offerings and move through their funding rounds, it’s reasonable to expect a wave of M&A activity with truck OEMs and service providers seeking to secure technology for future fleets. Just as small AI start-ups and mobility service providers are proving to be of considerable interest to the big suppliers and the light vehicle OEMs, so the self-driving truck technology start-ups are likely to be ever more desirable for the major truck manufacturers.

This article appeared in the Q3 2017 issue of Automotive Megatrends Magazine. Follow this link to download the full issue