Self-Driving Cars Are a Natural Fit for Rural America

By Adam Minter, Bloomberg

On a recent Friday evening, a white Toyota Sienna minivan with a cylindrical sensor mounted on its roof slowed to a stop in front of the only hospital in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, population 11,000. The door opened, and I took a seat behind the driver: a computer rack mounted in place of the passenger seat. Next to it was a friendly young operator who sits behind the steering wheel and ensures that this self-driving rideshare doesn’t suddenly skid into a snowbank or a pedestrian. Then we were on the way, passengers in the first autonomous vehicle pilot to run in a cold and icy rural environment.

It’s a pressing need. There are more than 1 million car-less households in rural America. Providing affordable transit to them has always been an expensive challenge. Thanks to rapidly aging rural demographics, it’s becoming harder. Drivers are scarce, costs are high, and the demand for rides to the doctor, the supermarket and the community center is booming.

Rural Americans aren’t the most obvious early adopters for robo-taxis. But right now they need transit innovations far more than people in more densely populated communities, and are far more willing to accept them. For autonomous technology companies, that’s an opportunity to establish the reliability and usefulness of technologies that have struggled to gain acceptance in cities and suburbs. In Grand Rapids, one of those companies, May Mobility Inc., is partnering with government and the community to make that market real. If they succeed, self-driving technologies will have earned a powerful business case, and millions of rural Americans will have a ride.

The Demographics Problem

Located 180 miles north of Minneapolis, Grand Rapids is the biggest town in sparsely populated Itasca County. It may seem counterintuitive that anyone would try to live without a car in such a vast and cold region where health care, jobs and other resources are concentrated in a single town. But the reasons aligned against personal car ownership in Grand Rapids, and across rural America, are powerful.

In 2021, 20% of the 46 million rural Americans were over the age of 65, compared to 16% of Americans in urban areas. Those rural Americans were, on average, poorer than their counterparts in urban areas — and more likely to be disabled. However, even rural seniors who can afford a car and are physically able to drive one are disinclined to get behind the wheel as they grow older.

That creates a dilemma. Car-less or not, seniors and disabled rural residents still have places to go. Non-emergency medical appointments and grocery shopping are critical to maintaining health and independent living. Community-oriented activities, from churchgoing to family get togethers, boost quality of life and reduce pressure on scarce caregivers.

In cities and suburbs, public transit buses can meet some of these needs. But due to their low population density, rural areas are more difficult and expensive to serve well, especially in the evenings and during weekends. For example, the last bus departs Grand Rapids’ only hospital at 3:20 p.m.; anyone with a late afternoon or evening appointment must rely on expensive non-emergency medical transport or a taxi to go home. That intermittent service typically hits those least able to afford it: In the US, 87% of the least revenue-efficient (defined as revenue per passenger mile) bus services are located in rural communities. Of those, 80% are located in communities with median incomes below the poverty line.

Transit Equity

In 2019, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz appointed a council to study and advise on challenges related to new transportation technologies, including autonomous vehicles. Myrna Peterson, a quadriplegic disability advocate from Grand Rapids was one of the first appointments. “A while back I started asking why people weren’t at things like community events,” she told me at a Grand Rapids community center she reached via the city’s autonomous shuttle service. “No transport, especially in the evening and weekends. That’s something we need to be independent.”

Around this time, May Mobility, an autonomous shuttle company based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, was looking for a rural community “where we could really demonstrate that we could help,” explains Edwin Olson, May’s chief executive officer, in a phone call. The help, as Olson views it, comes down to replacing or supplementing low-performing buses with May’s on-demand, point-to-point, autonomous shuttles. Olson tells me the cost of May’s shuttles are on par with typically inefficient rural bus services, while providing better service hours and lower wait and trip times.

Much, but not all of the time, that service will be autonomous. GoMarti’s Siennas are equipped with technology (Level 4 automation, in industry parlance) that enables them to drive in most conditions without a human taking over. However, for safety purposes, a human operator remains behind the wheel — mostly observing, not unlike an airline pilot on a highly automated passenger jet — in case conditions, such as iced-over roads, poor visibility, or a roundabout, require it. Over time, performance should improve and the role of the human operator will become less relevant. But even if the vehicles reach a point where they can operate in a white-out blizzard, it’s likely that an operator will remain present to help elderly and disabled passengers access the vehicles. For example, automated securement of wheelchairs remains an extremely difficult technical problem that’s unlikely to be solved soon. For May, the cost of the operator, now and for the foreseeable future, is figured into the model, at least in Grand Rapids.

Minnesota’s Autonomous Rural Transit Initiative (goMARTI), an 18-month, roughly $3.6 million demonstration (half funded by the state of Minnesota with the rest coming from public and private sponsors) began running in September in Grand Rapids. The service offers five specially outfitted Toyota Siennas, three of which are wheelchair accessible and compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The shuttles are free, and can be requested using an app or by calling a dispatch center.

Snowbank Encounters

On a recent evening I took several goMARTI rides around Grand Rapids, getting a look at the town and the service. It was a seamless and often dull experience. I watched the shuttle change lanes, turn, stop at stop signs and even negotiate busy intersections. It really didn’t feel much different from being a passenger in a regular car.

For May Mobility, achieving those uneventful rides has been far more challenging. One example: Autonomous vehicles that operate in cities often rely on tall buildings as navigational aids. In a rural setting there are fewer such landmarks. So May Mobility erected what CEO Olson called “totem poles” — simple visual markers — along featureless stretches of the goMARTI service area.

Then there’s the Minnesota weather. On particularly cold days, tailpipe exhaust can look like “mobile obstacles” to autonomous vehicle sensors. Snow and ice present more obvious challenges. Human operators take over when roads are coated. Yet even when the roads are clear, the vehicles struggle with other ubiquitous elements of winter. During one of my evening rides, a shuttle began to veer into a snowy shoulder, possibly confused by the road’s boundaries. Later that same evening, a shuttle dropped me off in a snowbank where, in warmer weather, a sidewalk would be.

When shuttle operators encounter incidents like these, they hit a button on the console to log a record for review by programmers and engineers who will seek to make improvements. Olson calls Grand Rapids “the crucible” where the company will learn to handle snow and ice. So far, it’s learning, and even improving, on human performance in some crucial areas. Two operators told me that shuttle sensors have detected deer about to jump into the road  — a persistent danger on Minnesota roads — before they could.

Measures of Success

Ultimately, goMARTI can be judged a success if the people of Grand Rapids feel comfortable and safe choosing to use it. The early returns are promising. According to May Mobility, the shuttles have served 687 people (in a town of 11,000), more than 75% of whom are repeat riders. Equally important, roughly 30% of all rides have included a wheelchair.

Longer term, questions about affordability will inevitably challenge whether such a program is worthwhile. GoMARTI is a free service, but transit subsidies are not unusual in rural or urban areas (New York City’s subway couldn’t operate without them). If, as May Mobility claims, the cost of providing autonomous services is competitive with the most inefficient transit services already offered in rural regions, the upgrade — even with an operator — is worthwhile. Minnesota and Grand Rapids aren’t the only places thinking this way. In Japan, the government and automakers have long viewed the country’s rapidly aging countryside as an important destination for autonomous vehicles; in France, a consortium of companies is preparing an autonomous shuttle program designed to revive its rural regions.

Meanwhile, in the US, the federal government and several universities have been examining rural autonomous transport for years. GoMARTI’s success or failure won’t make or break any of those programs and pilots. But with each ride, it’s building the case for networks of autonomous vehicles serving residents of rural communities, in the US and beyond.

GO Virginia Grant to Bolster Next-Generation Transportation, Manufacturing Workforce

By Diane Deffenbaugh, Virginia Tech

A statewide initiative designed to encourage economic growth has awarded the Virginia Tech College of Engineering a grant to advance Southwest Virginia’s manufacturing, transportation, and autonomous vehicles sector by scaling up the talent pipeline to train and retain workers.

The GO Virginia grant, which includes $500,000 in state funding and $251,300 from matching nonstate sources, builds on a Virginia Tech-led coalition of more than 150 public, private, and nonprofit organizations that was one of 60 finalists for the U.S. Economic Development Administration’s $1 billion Build Back Better Regional Challenge. The Automated-Connected-Electrified (ACE) coalition includes a team of higher education and community partners as well as industry leaders such as Volvo, Torc Robotics, and Mack.

John Provo, executive director of the Center for Economic and Community Engagement, which serves as GO Virginia’s regional support organization, lauded this new effort. He said the funding will allow the coalition to move forward with initiatives to help companies grow, build a shared identity for the cluster, and develop a diverse and technically ready workforce.

Pamela VandeVord, associate dean of research and innovation in the College of Engineering and the N. Waldo Harrison Professor of the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics, is principal investigator on the grant.

“Through the Industry 4.0 curriculum, we’re teaching students using real-world transportation and air mobility problems,” VandeVord said. “Our goal is to align the resources within Region 2 to help companies find success and talent as well as attract business to the area. In the process, we will elevate the transportation and autonomy sector, which has been identified as a priority sector in Region 2’s Growth and Diversification Plan.”

GO Virginia Region 2 stretches from the New River Valley to the Lynchburg area and north to the Alleghany Highlands. Since 2018, more than $8 million has been awarded to projects in the region, creating more than 700 jobs.

The ACE project will incorporate the findings of a previous GO Virginia planning grant focused on the training needs of Industry 4.0, a term used to describe today’s manufacturing environment that incorporates smart technologies and the internet to better connect and automate the industrial process.

The Virginia Tech Roanoke Center and the Grado Department of Industrial and System Engineering’s Learning Factory partnered on that grant to gather manufacturers, economic development experts, and educators — including ones from community colleges around the region — to gain insights into skills gaps in the workforce, existing training opportunities, and how to best fill any holes.

“The resulting Industry 4.0 curriculum will include hands-on training for in-demand jobs as well as skills necessary to be successful in the competitive and rapidly developing automated transportation system industry,” said Scott Weimer, executive director of Roanoke Regional Initiatives, which includes the Roanoke Center.

John S. Capps, president of Central Virginia Community College in Lynchburg, said that this type of collaboration will make all the difference in building a competitive workforce for the region.

“From work-based learning opportunities such as job shadowing and apprenticeships to state-of-the-art classrooms and lab spaces for hands-on practice with cutting-edge technologies, we can build customized workforce training to fill skills gaps across the manufacturing and transportation industries,” Capps said.

The project will also help businesses connect with resources and get customized training from Virginia Tech faculty and state manufacturing extension affiliate GENEDGE. A project technical advisory committee will include experts in education, training, and technical assistance from public agencies, business support nonprofits, and regional community organizations. A “network navigator,” meanwhile, will help companies find the educational and training programs that best fit their needs.

“By providing direct technical assistance and advising to companies through enhanced Industry 4.0 educational programs, this project is expected to create more than 140 jobs in the region with an average salary of $70,436 within five years,” Provo said.

The Center for Economic and Community Engagement, part of Outreach and International Affairs, is an established U.S. Economic Development Administration University Center. It provides research and university connections to help organizations and communities identify and tackle challenges in the urban-rural continuum across the commonwealth.

Full Speed Ahead: Bringing Autonomous Trucks to the Road

By DHL, Freightwaves

The growing severity of the driver shortage, combined with a shrinking number of predictable and set routes and increasing customer demands, is putting the spotlight once again on autonomous trucks. While the technology continues to evolve and show promise, it can sometimes be difficult to separate hype from reality and overpromises from viable ROI.

At DHL Supply Chain, we see the value autonomous trucks can bring to the supply chain, especially in long-haul logistics operations where they offer a new level of optimization unachievable with human operators. Autonomous trucks is one of the technologies we are actively exploring as part of our commitment to accelerating digitalization across the supply chain.

In fact, outdoor autonomous vehicles, including autonomous trucks, is one of the technology trends explored in the recently released DHL Logistics Trend Radar (LTR) 6.0. Spanning technology, business and social trends, the LTR offers insight on the specific innovations and trends becoming reality in the next 5-10 years to inspire change, boost collaboration and ensure supply chain resilience across every industry.

Taking a leadership role

DHL Supply Chain is investing in outdoor autonomous vehicles and working with several companies to move beyond the hype and make the transportation of freight on highways safer and more reliable through automation.

One such partner is Volvo. DHL Supply Chain and Volvo have enjoyed a long collaborative relationship, which includes the deployment of electric vehicles. In early 2022, Volvo Autonomous Solutions (VAS) announced it would offer a new hub-to-hub autonomous transport solution designed to serve shipper, carrier, logistics service provider and freight broker customer segments. DHL Supply Chain is Volvo’s first customer to pilot the hub-to-hub solution.

As part of this collaboration, DHL Supply Chain is now working closely with the company to understand the opportunity, identify any existing challenges and develop a plan to overcome them. Our teams are working together to ensure the technology is designed to meet the needs of the application and operate safely on the road.

With its proven track record of safety and relentless commitment to innovation, Volvo is an ideal partner for us as we look to safely optimize trucking with automation.

Providing a viable option for long-haul routes

Autonomous trucks promise to fundamentally change logistics, but not by completely replacing manually driven trucks in the supply chain. This is part of the hype that needs to be dispelled. DHL Supply Chain and VAS see autonomous trucks as a complement to the transport system we have today. They are not “the” solution, but another solution that will help us meet growing transport needs across the industry.

One area where we see autonomous trucks bringing value as the technology matures is with long-haul transport. Long-haul routes, which generally cover distances of more than 250 miles, tend to be the least desirable jobs for drivers. They can require long hours on the road and days away from family and friends. With the current driver shortage, many applicants are opting out of these types of routes—at a time when many long-haul truck drivers continue to retire.

Federal regulations prescribe driving times and breaks for drivers, which means manually operated trucks have to stop frequently. The aim, understandably, is to minimize the risk of fatigue and prevent possible driving errors. However, an autonomous truck would not be governed by these regulations, significantly cutting delivery times and operational costs.

For example, a manually operated freight truck delivering product from California to Pennsylvania would normally take about nine days, factoring in inclement weather. A rush direct order could take five days. An autonomous truck that would not have to take breaks and could move continuously could conceivably do the same delivery in three days.

Additionally, by driving much closer together at high speeds, two or more communicating autonomous trucks could form a tight platoon, reducing drag and providing up to 20% in fuel savings and reducing emissions.

Furthermore, without the need for a human driver, autonomous trucks can allocate more vehicle space to cargo, lowering transportation costs for each trip. Some autonomous truck designs and prototypes even suggest eliminating the entire truck cab, lowering production and operations costs, while increasing loading capacity and energy efficiency.

Of course, we are not quite there yet. It will still be a few years before we see fleets of autonomous trucks on the nation’s highways. More technology advances and tests are needed, as well as the formation and standardization of rules and regulations before real benefits can be realized.

We continue to work closely with our partners, including Volvo, to evolve the technology for open-road use. While cost savings and efficiency gains are an important part of the equation, safety remains a top focus.

According to the U.S. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), 45,900 large trucks were involved in injury crashes on U.S. roads in 2020. Safety in our facilities and in our trucks is a number one priority for DHL Supply Chain. Ideally, autonomous trucking will offer another valuable asset that will help us continue to do our part in decreasing injuries and increasing safety on the roads.

Fleets Begin to get a Feel for the Future of Moving Freight

By Josh Fisher, FleetOwner

Large fleets are starting to get a feel for the future of humanless freight transportation. As various autonomous trucking technology companies and truck makers team up, they are starting to show how the middle mile could transform supply chains and create more home time for the human drivers on their payrolls.

While some of these fleets are going with the OEMs that supply their equipment, others are opting to be part of pilot programs with the technology companies that are penetrating the trucking world with promises of robot trucks hauling freight 24/7 across the Sunbelt in the U.S. The autonomous freight moving right now through these pilots and other test programs has human safety drivers on board, who must adhere to hours-of-service rules and other regulations. But the AV companies are still saying that humans could be gone in the coming years. Until then, it’s about testing out lanes and logistics.

Doug Veatch, VP of strategy at 10 Roads Express (No. 32 on the FleetOwner 500: Top For-Hire Fleets), said his fleet chose to partner with Kodiak Robotics because the self-driving truck company has a similar approach to safety as the for-hire carrier. “The other reason we picked Kodiak is that their product offering might be able to fit in a little better with organizations that are OEM agnostic,” he said of the Kodiak Driver, the autonomous technology that is designed as an upfit for trucks.

“We’re remaining flexible,” Don Burnette, Kodiak’s CEO and founder, told FleetOwner. “We have a platform-agnostic system. We’ve designed the Kodiak Driver to work across multiple manufacturers and multiple models of trucks. We think that’s very important.”

Veatch said that Kodiak’s modular upfit approach could help his fleet find earlier applications than just focusing on a single make and model tractor, which is how some OEMs are developing AV technology.

Volvo Group, which operates Volvo Trucks North America here, is working with autonomous technology company Aurora Innovation to develop AV-powered trucks in the factory. Aurora has partnered with other OEMs, including Kenworth and Peterbilt. The AV company also has partnered with FedEx Corp., Werner Enterprises, Schneider, and other fleets as it develops its technology.

“We are confident in our strong path to market, differentiated technology, and industry-leading team, and we continue to believe autonomous technology will be the next fundamental change in ground transportation,” said Chris Urmson, Aurora CEO and co-founder.

Daimler Truck is working with Waymo to develop its factory-built self-driving Freightliner Cascadia. And Daimler Truck North America also has a majority stake in Torc Robotics, the oldest self-driving technology company in the U.S.

Creating safer, human-less freight movement

10 Roads, a fleet provider for the U.S. Postal Service, has used Kodiak trucks with Kodiak safety operators on board to move freight more than 5,500 miles—from San Antonio, Texas, to the Bay Area in California, to Jacksonville, Florida, and back to San Antonio. The first run was completed in 114 hours. “That’s what we’ve done with them so far this year,” Veatch said. “We’ve been working on finding those lanes as we ramp up to do a little more. But the focus this year was on the coast-to-coast trip.”

Veatch sees the emerging autonomous technology as the next step in the advanced driver assistance systems that are emerging in the trucking industry. “We’ve seen all these advances in technology over the last few years with the lane departure, the crash avoidance—even the camera technology used to identify sleepy or distracted drivers,” he explained. “I think this is the next step in that evolution. The industry has been working on improving safety overall for several years with these improvements. I think this is just the natural progression of using all those technologies together to really start looking at how we can operate more safely.”

With that safety would also come a better work-life balance for his drivers, which Veatch believes the technology would supplement—not replace. “In this day and age, drivers want to have home-daily jobs. That’s what I hear a lot,” he explained. “I think by taking that middle mile and possibly being able to leverage some of the autonomous technology, that makes better jobs for drivers. It also may create more jobs for drivers because you can move more product to the road that is perhaps not on the road today. I think it has the potential of really doing good things for the drivers in the industry.”

Peter Voorhoeve, president of Volvo Trucks North America, said the AV technology development “will go fast—but it’s not a race.” He told FleetOwner he expects the technology to mature quickly, but he wants the focus to be on safety and supplementing fleet operations.

“I think there are a lot of companies that see the application of driverless hub-to-hub operations as complementary to what they’re doing today rather than pushing drivers out of the truck—because that is not going to happen,” he said.

Self-driving journey ahead

Sasko Cuklev, director of autonomous solutions at Volvo Trucks, told FleetOwner that the OEM is working on “an industrialized, scalable solution with safety in mind.”

“We want this product to come out of our New River Valley factory assembly line autonomous-enabled,” Cuklev said. “We are not focused on being first. What we are aiming at is a scalable solution, a commercially viable solution that will solve real-world problems. We will do this together with our customers and support our customers in their transformation.”

One of Volvo Group’s early AV test partners is DHL (No. 67 on FleetOwner 500: For-Hire). DHL Supply Chain and Volvo Autonomous Solutions began working on a hub-to-hub program earlier this year using Aurora-equipped Volvo VNL autonomous trucks.

“We see huge potential in advanced technology solutions like autonomous trucks to address the needs of our customers around efficiency, reliability, and increased capacity, which only hastened during the pandemic,” said Jim Monkmeyer, president of transportation for DHL Supply Chain North America. “But our collaboration aims higher than an autonomous truck. We hope our partnership with Volvo will help shape a safer and more sustainable future for all.”

But when will fleets actually be able to move freight without human drivers or safety operators on board? Most AV companies are still eyeing the middle of this decade.

VTNA’s Voorhoeve doesn’t have a specific timeline other than to say “second part of this decade,” he told FleetOwner. “That does not mean 2029, by the way, but maybe it also is not March 2026. This is technology that is really new, and we really need to take the time to do this in a good way.”

Volvo’s Cuklev noted that there are all sorts of safety-driver-monitored AV trucking demonstrations across the U.S. “But to take the step to operate 24/7 in a long contract every day, have a reliable solution, and a safe solution, we are not really there yet,” he said.

He said that Volvo is still focused on the truck side of the technology “so that we have a secondary or a redundant braking system, a steering system, power management system, communications, and so on. [We need to] have that in place so that we eventually can remove the safety driver. But we are not really there yet. From a demo perspective, it works perfectly fine. I was in one the other week between Dallas and Houston—it worked perfectly. But there is still a journey ahead in order to make it commercially ready.”

But 10 Roads’ Veatch is being patient.

“It’s hard to know when the technology will be both commercially available and broadly accepted in the courtroom of public opinion,” he said. “I’m not sure anybody really knows when those will happen. Our goal is to take this time to be prepared to integrate the AVs when appropriate.”

For 10 Roads, it all comes back to safety and drivers, Veatch said. “There’s really no excuse at the end of the day when drivers don’t get to go home,” he emphasized. “So if there’s technology that will help with that, we want to be on board with it. That’s something that’s very important to the 10 Roads family.”

Uber Freight Expands Autonomous Truck Pilot with Aurora for Peak Season

By Heavy Duty Trucking Staff,

Uber Freight and Aurora are “deepening” their autonomous-truck pilot with a new 600-mile lane between Dallas/Fort Worth and El Paso. Weekly hauls began last month for packing solutions distributor Veritiv and will continue through and beyond the 2022 holiday season.

The pilot provides critical first-hand learnings around autonomous truck deployment, creating a blueprint for how the Aurora Driver will be integrated, safely deployed, and scaled across the Uber Freight network in the coming years. Testing during this peak season also highlights autonomous trucks’ potential impact when demand quickly fluctuates.

This collaboration brings together Aurora Horizon, Aurora’s autonomous trucking service, with Uber Freight’s logistics network to unlock autonomous volume for carriers.

“Our extensive and efficient digital marketplace is a key ingredient for autonomous freight deployment,” said Lior Ron, CEO of Uber Freight.

In the pilot, packaging products and goods are autonomously driven to Veritiv warehouses, including retailers, schools, and healthcare providers, in western Texas and New Mexico. These packages are autonomously transported more than 600 miles between Aurora’s terminals with on-time delivery, which is critical during the holiday season.

The three companies will closely monitor and examine data on delivery efficiency, transit times, operations at the transfer hubs, autonomous capabilities and performance, and customer satisfaction.

“Veritiv’s next-generation supply chain strategy is to create and sustain a competitive advantage in operations with innovative and efficient technologies,” said Mike Walkenhorst, Veritiv SVP of global operations and developing businesses. “This autonomous vehicle pilot aligns with our strategy to assess new technologies to determine the best fit for our business and our customers.”

Uber Freight’s multiphase commercial autonomous trucking pilot began in December 2021 to better understand how the Aurora Driver will help carriers maximize fleet utilization, broaden opportunities to safely haul goods, and streamline supply operations.

The pilot continues to grow, with autonomous loads more than doubling over the past year. This latest expansion in Texas now unlocks a longer lane for further autonomous trucking testing and insights across different operating models, which Aurora will incorporate into its subscription service for carriers

“The holidays are a challenging time for the logistics industry. We’re crafting Aurora Horizon to help carriers of all sizes alleviate some of the supply chain pressures that typically accompany them,” said Sterling Anderson, chief product officer and co-founder of Aurora. “Deploying our technology with the Uber Freight team over this 600-mile trip at the peak of the season is an outgrowth of our mutual commitment to ensure that Aurora Horizon can enable carriers of all sizes to safely and efficiently haul freight 24/7/365 on the Uber Freight network.”

These autonomous assets are deployed alongside human drivers in a hybrid hub-to-hub model, with self-driving trucks handling the long-haul middle mile and local carriers from the Uber Freight platform on the shorter first-and last-mile hauls.

In an announcement, Uber Freight said it is “excited to continue innovating and expanding our autonomous pilot programs in 2023, enabling more shippers to begin moving freight autonomously in the American Southwest and beyond as this technology further integrates into carriers’ operations.”