What Is Autonomous Trucking?

By Jacob Biba, Builtin

Autonomous trucking is a term used to describe self-driving tractor trailers that transport goods. The aim of autonomous trucking is to one day get big rigs and delivery trucks, and the things they carry, from point A to point B without human intervention. Today, autonomous trucks are traveling on roadways in various parts of the United States, like the Southwest, at a limited capacity, often with a safety driver on board to take control if anything were to go haywire.

Autonomous Truck Companies to Know

  • Einride
  • Embark
  • Gatik
  • Kodiak Robotics
  • TuSimple
  • Waabi
  • Waymo


How Do Autonomous Trucks Work?

Autonomous trucks work by using sensing technologies like LiDAR (a sensing technology that uses light to determine distance), radar and optical cameras to gather visual data from the surrounding area, delivering that information to a computer loaded with maps and algorithms that analyzes the information and makes decisions. It’s not too different from how a brain uses what a human eye feeds it to decide when it’s safe to change lanes or make a left turn.

Like other self-driving vehicles, software is the key to autonomous trucking. As a result, most autonomous truck companies aren’t actually manufacturing trucks, they’re writing the code that integrates artificial intelligence with all the sensors, maps, algorithms and other perception tools needed for trucks to forgo human drivers.

“We don’t build the trucks … We make software, and then we have a set of modules that we call Embark Universal Interface that allow a variety of different types of platforms to run that software.”

“We don’t build the trucks,” Alex Rodrigues, CEO and co-founder of Embark, an autonomous truck company based in San Francisco, California, told Built In. “We make software, and then we have a set of modules that we call Embark Universal Interface that allow a variety of different types of platforms to run that software.”

According to Rodrigues, Embark’s software works by breaking down the individual actions required to operate a big rig into steps related to perception, planning, control and vehicle actuation, just like a human driver would.

When Will Autonomous Trucks Be a Reality?

Autonomous trucks are a reality — but they’re not the norm.

“It was assumed that long haul trucking would be the first autonomous delivery use case to commercialize, and it since proved out that it’s somewhat more challenging than was originally expected,” Richard Steiner, head of policy and communications at Gatik, an autonomous truck company focused on middle-mile deliveries between businesses, told Built In.

But Steiner believes autonomous trucking will ultimately become more prevalent — it’s just a few years away.

Over the course of the next few years, companies will have to overcome barriers, like regulation, that are holding the industry back, according to Ann Campbell, a professor of business analytics at University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business.

Getting On and Off Highways

One barrier is related to how autonomous trucks will get on and off highways and how they’ll operate in points of origin, like a port, if they’re going to be fully autonomous, Campbell said. (The most likely solution would be for a human driver to operate the truck in those situations.)

Road Conditions

And then there’s weather and other unforeseen events that happen on highways, like accidents.

“I think that’s where you get the win, is when you’re on the highway and everything’s in good condition,” Campbell said. “But you still probably need what they call a safety driver, at least in some of the trucks, to handle those strange situations.”


Additionally, there’s regulators to think about.

In the United States, more than half the states allow autonomous trucks, but some don’t, making long haul transport difficult.

“If you’re going coast to coast, you may have to encounter a state that doesn’t allow for autonomous vehicles, so you have to go all the way around it,” Steiner said. “There’s a challenge there.”

With autonomous trucks navigating much shorter routes ranging anywhere between a few miles and 300 miles, Gatik has had an easier time overcoming regulatory obstacles, which has put the company in a strong position for growth, according to Steiner.

“Just speaking to our use case — hyper-constrained, structured, point-to-point, fixed, known, repeatable routes — that language has resonated very well with regulators who said, ‘OK, this makes sense to us from a safety framework,’” Steiner said.

‘A Dimmer Switch’

Rodrigues said Embark is aiming for 2024, with a slow deployment — he describes it more as a dimmer switch than a light switch — primarily in the Sunbelt states. “If you’re living in Chicago you’re not going to see self-driving trucks in 2024,” he said, noting the limits on scalability, regulations and ease of use. “But in Phoenix, we might start to see that.”

Embark is also focusing on working with customers to make their system more user friendly and production ready. “There’s a whole lot of work to go from ‘it drives itself’ to ‘it drives itself and we can deliver them at scale and you can turn them on and they just work,’” Rodrigues said.

Will Autonomous Trucks Replace Drivers?

To some degree, autonomous trucks could replace drivers, but there’s already a sizable shortage in the labor market, which is constraining the supply chain as it is. Instead, Rodrigues and others like Campbell see autonomous trucks as improving the quality of life of drivers and making the job more enjoyable.

“Being able to take out that road part and just have the drivers do the part where their technique and skill is really involved could make it a much more interesting job for people,” Campbell said.

“So, you have a pool of drivers who want to be able to work in one city, but then you have a pool of actual routes that are unfilled, that are these long intercity routes … And what we’re able to do is pair those together, where you have the driverless truck do the ferrying across those long distances.”

Because Embark’s self-driving platform is designed for autonomous highway driving — not city centers — Rodrigues believes drivers will be able to work locally in a single city transporting trucks to and from highways, while Embark’s autonomous system guides the truck between those cities.

“So, you have a pool of drivers who want to be able to work in one city, but then you have a pool of actual routes that are unfilled, that are these long intercity routes,” Rodrigues said. “And what we’re able to do is pair those together, where you have the driverless truck do the ferrying across those long distances.”

Will Autonomous Trucks Replace Air Freight?

Autonomous truck companies frequently tout the benefits of self-driving trucks, from increasing efficiency in the logistics industry to cutting transport costs.

“If you look over the next decade, trucking is, fairly obviously, the market that’s going to create the most value for self driving because it solves a really pressing problem in terms of drivers not wanting to be out on the road for long periods of time,” Rodrigues said. “In terms of moving valuable loads 24 hours a day, you get a lot more utilization and you’re solving a real problem.”

As a result, autonomous trucking has the potential to rival air freight, according to Campbell.

“This idea of going to autonomous trucking could really speed up the supply chain so much for a lot of products, that could start to make trucking be really competitive with air freight in a way we’ve never seen,” Campbell told Built In. “And that could have a big impact.”

Essentially, what would normally take several days to transport goods with a human driver, given federal regulations limiting driving time to 11 hours, could be done in as little as one day with an autonomous truck running continuously, stopping only to refuel or for inspections. As a result, companies relying on shipments could adjust the amount of inventory they receive in one shipment and could have smaller warehouses, Campbell said, all of which would reduce operating costs for businesses.

Autonomous Trucking Companies

When it comes to a driverless future in the trucking industry, these autonomous truck companies appear to be in it for the long haul.

Einride is an autonomous truck company based in Stockholm, Sweden. The company’s trucks are electric and operate in the United States and in Europe. Einride secured an additional $500 million in financing last year and was the first company to be approved to operate one of its trucks without a safety driver on a public road in the United States, according to Robotics and Automation News. It conducted its first test run in October.

Kodiak is an autonomous truck company headquartered in Mountain View, California, and began transporting goods in 2019. Its trucks operate in the southern portion of the United States and the company’s 2,500th delivery was made in 2022, according to FreightWaves, a trade publication focused on the supply chain. The same year, one of the company’s trucks completed a 5,600 mile freight run from San Antonio, Texas to San Francisco, California, and then Jacksonville, Florida, before returning to San Antonio, according to TechCrunch. The trip, which was for a private mail carrier for the United States Postal Service, took 114 hours to complete. Also in 2022, Kodiak was awarded a $49.9 million contract to help develop combat vehicles for the U.S. Army, CNBC reported.

TuSimple is an autonomous truck company based in San Diego. Founded in 2015, the company operates in the southwest and southeast regions of the United States, using terminals within its Autonomous Freight Network in cities like Phoenix, Dallas and Orlando. Currently, the company’s trucks operate with a safety driver onboard, but according to its website, in December 2021, one of TuSimple’s trucks operated on a public roadway without a safety driver onboard “while naturally interacting with other motorists.”

Headquartered in Toronto, Canada, Waabi is a relatively new autonomous truck company founded in 2021. Last year, the company released its first self-driving truck which relies on Waabi Driver, the company’s software designed to be integrated during the truck’s manufacturing stage. According to TechCrunch, Waabi’s first run of trucks will be used for commercial pilots and testing.

Waymo is a self-driving technology company born out of Google’s autonomous vehicle project. Through Waymo Via, the company is integrating its self-driving platform, Waymo Driver, to the trucking industry. The company is currently testing autonomous trucks in New Mexico, California, Texas and Arizona.

Self-driving semis focus of California rules, legislation

By Adam Beam, AP News

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — As California regulators explore new rules to put self-driving semitrucks on the road, labor unions are rushing to the state Legislature to ask for a new law they say will protect their jobs — the start of a debate that could shape the future of the nation’s nearly $900 billion trucking industry.

California already has rules governing self-driving cars and delivery trucks that weigh less than 10,001 pounds (4,536 kilograms). Now, the California Department of Motor Vehicles is gathering information for potential new rules that would let self-driving semitrucks on the road that can weigh up to 80,000 pounds (36,287 kilograms).

The rulemaking process takes a long time, and is mostly crafted by officials in Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration. Labor unions aren’t waiting around for that to happen. Instead, they’ve asked the state Legislature — where they have considerably more influence given their prolific campaign contributions — to intervene.

On Monday, more than 100 of members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters joined Assemblymember Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, a Democrat from Winters, as she announced new legislation to require all self-driving semitrucks have a human driver present to oversee them.

Labor leaders focused much of their messaging Monday on public safety — an argument seemingly tailored to appeal to the driving public.

Mike Fry, a San Francisco-based truck driver with 27 years of experience, told a frightening story about a passenger car losing control and getting wedged beneath his trailer. Fry said he knew not to slam on the brakes, so he slowly made his way to the side of the road and drove next to some bushes that dislodged the car, which he said “popped the car out like a Pop-Tart.”

“You cannot program instinct into a computer,” Fry told the crowd. “There is no way they can think like that.”

But beyond safety issues, labor unions see the technology as a threat to their jobs. Speakers at the rally attacked what they view as corporate greed, name dropping Elon Musk, the billionaire head of electric vehicle company Tesla. The company has promised to deliver semitrucks that would be able to follow each other autonomously in a convoy.

Lindsay Dougherty, vice president of the western region of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, said California has 500,000 commercial truck drivers on the road, giving it outsized importance in terms of shaping national transportation policy.

“So goes California, so goes the rest of the nation,” she said. “If we lose this, we’re never getting them back.”

Multiple companies are testing self-driving technology for semitrucks, and many have eyed California as a place to eventually deploy the technology given its busy ports that require lots of trucks to transport goods to warehouses.

The Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association, an industry trade group that supports self-driving technology, has argued autonomous trucks would make for safer roadways, asserting computers make fewer mistakes than humans. Asked about Aguiar-Curry’s bill, the group pointed to a statement from Executive Director Jeff Farrah issued last week in response to a public hearing on potential new state regulations.

“It’s important to remember that it will take time for AV trucks’ full potential to be reached in the Golden State, with deployment taking place gradually over the years to fill in current and future labor shortages,” Farrah said. “Therefore, it is imperative the California DMV begin a rulemaking for development of AV trucks so consumers and businesses can realize these opportunities while also preparing the workforce of tomorrow for this shift.”

Aguiar-Curry said she isn’t opposed to fully self-driving semitrucks, but said she believes the technology isn’t ready.

“There may be a time, 30 or 40 years from now — and I won’t be around to see it — where hopefully that they might be able to do that,” she said. “This isn’t the time to do it. It’s all about timing.”

New Company Uses AI to Train Autonomous Trucks

Deborah Lockridge, HDT Talks Trucking Linked Interview

It’s recently appeared that self-driving trucks are not going to be hauling freight down the road without a driver as quickly as some developers and investors had expected. Startup Waabi says its AI-focused approach will allow it to commercialize the technology faster.

HDT Editor in Chief Deborah Lockridge talks to Waabi’s Dustin Koehl, a former fleet manager, about how the company’s approach differs and why they call themselves the next generation of autonomous trucks. In the interview, Koehl hints of a big OEM announcement. Since our interview, Volvo Group Venture Capital announced an investment in Waabi Innovation Inc.

In This Episode:

  • Has autonomous-truck development hit a wall?
  • Using AI to train Waabi Driver
  • Where is Waabi in the development process?
  • Working with truck makers
  • Will autonomous trucks put drivers out of work?
  • Path to commercialization
  • What needs to happen for self-driving trucks to become an everyday reality in logistics?

California’s Economy Could Benefit From Autonomous Trucking Amid Inflation, Labor Shortages

By Jeff Farrah, Orange County Register

Growing up in California, I witnessed how the state’s innovative spirit and diverse economy made for a better life. Last summer the Port of Los Angeles lost its crown as the busiest port in North America for the first time in 22 years, taking second place to the Port of New York and New Jersey. California has an opportunity to regain its supply chain leadership as policymakers convene stakeholders to discuss how autonomous trucks — which would deliver essential goods and materials across the state — can be a big part of the solution for supporting the shipping industry and its jobs.

The California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) recently took the first step forward to evaluate how autonomous trucks can be deployed in California. It is imperative this process move forward with a formal rulemaking authorizing the testing and deployment of autonomous trucks to provide greater supply chain resiliency for the state, fill in labor shortage’s gaps and help to bring down prices while supporting new jobs and investing in tomorrow’s workforce.

We may not see long lines of container ships waiting offshore anymore, but importers have shifted their goods away from the West Coast to East Coast ports, which are surging ahead in container import volumes. This is an alarming trend, as the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach currently support 1.4 million Californian jobs, and thousands of these jobs are endangered if cargo volumes do not return.

Even when goods come in through California, many sit in warehouses waiting for transport to their destination. One reason for this is the 78,000 truck driver shortage, despite higher pay and aggressive recruiting. Between expected freight growth and more retirements in an aging trucking workforce, the shortage could reach 160,000 by 2031. The numbers simply don’t add up — the amount of truck drivers can’t keep up with the economy’s demands.

Thankfully, homegrown California innovation can help solve this problem. Autonomous trucks would work hand-in-hand with the trucking and shipping workforce to boost California’s supply chain. One study confirmed that autonomous long-haul trucks would increase economic output in the Golden State by upwards of $6.5 billion and add 2,400 jobs without mass layoffs. The existing driver shortage is especially severe in the long-haul sector where jobs involve long and stressful days away from families.

Autonomous trucks need many workers to support the industry: technicians, maintenance staff, engineers, remote support operators and more. Across the country, the U.S. Department of Transportation projected that autonomous trucks would raise wages for all workers and spur $111 billion in investment across all sectors.

Autonomous trucks’ environmental benefits can also help cut emissions. The technology optimizes driving behavior, reducing fuel consumption by at least 10% with better speed management, smoother handling and less idling. Autonomous trucks can also avoid crowded cities at rush hour and reduce congestion for all vehicles.

Many of the leaders in autonomous trucking are based right here in California. Yet current state regulations prohibit autonomous trucks from commercializing within the state. Though their employees live and work in California neighborhoods, the state’s businesses and consumers are unable to see any of the technology’s efficiencies, economic opportunities or environmental benefits. In the meantime, import volumes will continue to dwindle as California risks losing its leadership status in innovation and shipping

Just as California has already been superseded by East Coast ports, neighboring states like Arizona, New Mexico and Texas already have autonomous freight technology in action and are producing commercial partnerships. While California has prohibited the commercialization of autonomous trucks, other states across the country have passed legislation and instituted regulations that promote the technology and recognize the promise presented. Until a rulemaking from California regulators, the Golden State is getting left further and further behind.

Because the growth of autonomous trucks will be incremental, it is vital for industry, government and labor to work together in preparing tomorrow’s workforce for this shift. The autonomous trucking industry believes that this rulemaking should be pursued in tandem with efforts to understand transitional needs for the workforce. There are opportunities to expand training and certification programs, along with opening up dialogues between different groups, and the AV industry is dedicated to being a constructive voice in these discussions.

Californians can’t be complacent in losing out on freight and cargo to other parts of the country.

Autonomous trucks provide innovative solutions to the state’s inflation, supply chain, and labor shortage challenges.

It’s time for policymakers, workers, and industry to move forward together on the promise of autonomous vehicles in parallel with promoting California’s workforce.

A native of Torrance, Jeff Farrah is executive director of the Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association.

National Science Foundation Spearheads New Funding to Improve Diversity in AI Workforce

By Alexandra Kelley, Nextgov

Several federal research bodies are collaborating to launch a new inclusivity program that aims to help bring minority-serving educational institutions into the artificial intelligence field, as more technologies incorporate AI and machine learning software.

The U.S. National Science Foundation, in conjunction with other agencies including the Department of Homeland Security, Science and Technology Directorate; U.S Department of Agriculture, National Institute of Food and Agriculture, and National Institute of Standards and Technology, established the ExpandAI program to cultivate a more diverse AI/ML workforce.

“In close collaboration with our federal partners and with the AI Institutes program, NSF Is launching ExpandAI in order to enable an even broader community of researchers to advance the Nation’s AI capacity in scientific power and workforce,” said Margaret Martonosi, the NSF assistant director for Computer and Information Science and Engineering, in a statement.

The program, adhering to the guidance outlined in the earlier in the National AI Strategic Plan published in 2019, will direct more federal funding to AI research and development education, specifically within institutions that serve a diverse student population and specify in AI education.

The key feature of ExpandAI is providing federal funding for development projects and partnerships among the participating National AI Research Institutes and incorporating more diverse student teams. Capacity development projects will specifically work to establish new AI education centers within minority serving colleges and universities that do not currently offer AI/ML curriculs and have a large population of African Americans/Black American, Hispanic American, American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander students.

Some of the schools that already offer strong AI/ML education tracks that have partnered with NSF include Ohio State University, the University of California San Diego, Georgia Tech, and Duke University.

“We hope to see a more diverse, more inclusive participation of talented innovators from across our nation, driving AI research and innovation that continues to build our country’s AI leading capabilities and workforce development,” Martonosi said.

Each institution looking to qualify for capacity building funding may receive a grant of up to $400,000 dispersed over the course of two years. By contrast, institutions that already offer advanced AI/ML courses can receive between $300,000 to $700,000 over the course of up to four years.

Some of the previous projects funded by ExpandAI have focused on advancing research in rural health, molecular biology research, environmental science, and industry optimization.

Increasing diversity in the programming workforce behind AI/ML technologies has been a priority area for the Biden administration and various private industry leaders as AI algorithms have proven to discriminate against people of color and other historically vulnerable groups.