In late November, a Silicon Valley startup took a chance and sent an autonomous truck on a 2,800- mile trek from Tulare, California, to Quakertown, Pennsylvania, carrying 40,000 pounds of Land O’Lakes butter, likely the first commercial freight cross-country trip by an autonomous truck.
It worked. Plus.ai, located in Cupertino, insured the project by equipping the truck with a safety driver who could take over the driving if something went wrong as well as a safety engineer to monitor the ride. Shawn Kerrigan, co-founder and COO of Plus.ai, stated, “We wanted to demonstrate the safety, reliability and maturity of our overall system.”
Kerrigan claimed the system employed cameras, radar and lidar — laser-based technology to help vehicles determine distance, according to the Santa Cruz Sentinel. Breaks were scheduled along the route but most of the journey the truck drove itself. Kerrigan said there were no instances where the self-driving system was suspended. He said Plus.ai has been running freight every week for roughly one year.
Land O’Lakes chief supply officer Yone Dewberry cheered, “To be able to address this peak demand with a fuel-and-cost-effective freight transport solution will be tremendously valuable to our business.”
Popular Mechanics reported of Plus.ai:
The founders, a group of Stanford Ph.D. students, knew that trucking—which has been experiencing a labor shortage since 2003, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)—is the primary method for shipping goods across the U.S. So they decided to apply their artificial intelligence know-how to long-haul trucking, building out the full-stack self-driving technology needed to make a cross country freight trip possible.
The Sentinel added, “Dan Ives, managing director of equity research for Wedbush Securities, predicts there will be quite a few autonomous freight-delivery pilots in 2020 and 2021, with the beginning of a commercial rollout in 2022 … The timeline will depend on regulations, which vary state to state, he said.”
Last year Embark Trucks sent an autonomous truck 2,400 miles across the country but the truck transported no freight. Popular Mechanics noted that according to the California Department of Motor Vehicles, there are now 65 companies that hold a California Autonomous Vehicle Testing License.
McKinsey & Company pointed out, “Sixty-five percent of the nation’s consumable goods are trucked to market. With full autonomy, operating costs would decline by about 45 percent, saving the US for-hire trucking industry between $85 billion and $125 billion.”
McKinsey theorized that the rollout of autonomous trucks would be comprised of four waves: The first wave will feature connecting a convoy of trucks wirelessly to a lead truck, which would still require a driver in each truck. In the second wave, roughly five to seven years from now, a driver would inhabit the lead truck and unmanned trucks would follow. A driver would take over when the truck left the highway.
The third wave, seven to ten years from now, would entail unmanned trucks driving the highways and drivers meeting them at the exits to steer them to their destination. The fourth wave, roughly ten years from now, would feature unmanned trucks driving from loading to delivery.