Cruise Senior Public Affairs Manager Michele Lee Talks Autonomous Cars And New Accessibility Council In Interview

By Steven Aquino, Forbes

In a blog post published on Friday, autonomous car maker Cruise announced the formation of a so-called Cruise Accessibility Council. The San Francisco-based and General Motors-backed company wrote the Accessibility Council is yet another step forward in its steadfast commitment to making the future of transport “more accessible, equitable, and inclusive” to everyone, regardless of ability level.

Cruise describes the Accessibility Council as “a cross-disability group of leaders and advocates who will provide external, independent input on Cruise’s product, programs, and approach to accessibility.” Feedback from the group will be instrumental in “[continuing] to develop all our services.” The Accessibility Council is comprised of seventeen people representing various disability organizations, including the National Federation of the Blind, the United Spinal Association, and the National Association of the Deaf. The Council members, Cruise said, “bring a wide range of disciplines and lived experiences to the table, with the mission of realizing a more accessible transportation future.”

“Self-driving technology has the potential to help people overcome numerous mobility challenges. But that reality cannot be achieved in a vacuum—it has to be done with direct input from people with disabilities,” wrote Michele Lee, who leads accessibility efforts at Cruise, in their announcement posted to its website. “I came to Cruise as an advocate within the disability community myself, and the [popular in the community] refrain ‘nothing about us, without us’ rings true.”

Lee, who lives in Chicago, has played an integral role in seeing Cruise’s Council go from conception to fruition. She became disabled herself in a car accident, suffering neck and spinal cord injuries. An electric wheelchair user for close to two decades, Lee’s injuries meant she was unable to drive again so accessible transportation is a topic very close to her heart. So close, in fact, she serves on the board of the Chicago Transit Authority. Everybody wants to get around and go places, but as a wheelchair user, Lee finds relying on public transit and ride-share problematic because they’re not consistently accommodating to disabled people.

Enter Cruise and their autonomous driving technologies.

“I’ve been an advocate for people with disabilities ever since becoming a member of this community and just fighting for access to just everything,” Lee said to me earlier this week in an exclusive interview via videoconference ahead of today’s news. “It’s been a journey, and transportation has been a real focus for me.”

Lee works on Cruise’s public affairs team. She described her primary responsibility is to “engage with disability advocates and advocacy groups and the disability community at large to understand the needs of the population. Obviously, disability is very nuanced and it’s very diverse.” In terms of a car’s functionality, Lee is in the trenches working with teammates to ensure Cruise’s vehicles embody the company’s institutional beliefs on accessibility and inclusion.

The advent of the Accessibility Council is representative of Cruise’s ethos around disability inclusion, according to Lee. The company has a long history of partnerships with the disability community, and the Accessibility Council stands on the shoulders on those bonds. Lee is especially proud of, and excited for, the Accessibility Council because it’s an earnest attempt at not merely improving the literal accessibility of Cruise’s products—it’s a conduit to constant conversation.

“We’ve long engaged, Cruise as a whole, with a lot of different disability advocacy groups,” Lee said. “We’re really trying to formalize these relationships and bring everyone into a room and make it a little bit more diverse in terms of all the disabilities together having a voice [and] learning from each other.”

Beyond the broader societal representation angle, Lee explained, somewhat jokingly, another reason for creating the Council is sheer pragmatism. She talks to people all the time. “I just thought it would be a way to make it easier,” she said. “If we’re meeting quarterly, then I can save on the [amount] of meetings.”

As for the future, Lee keenly shared Cruise has even bigger ambition that, of course, is mindful of inclusivity and empathy. She told me the company is currently developing a “purpose-built vehicle from the ground up to be wheelchair accessible,” which she added is a first of its kind. The minivan-like vehicle is known as the Origin Mobility. The project is being worked on in collaboration with GM, with Lee telling me the car’s safety standards will be “amazing.” Cruise is doing user testing in the Bay Area, and maintains a database of people with accessibility needs. “We’re always trying to expand and get new folks to come and test our products, including the wheelchair accessible vehicle,” Lee said.

The Origin Mobility, combined with Cruise’s autonomous driving technology, is quite representative of what accessible transport can be like for disabled people in the future. Lee calls self-driving tech a “game-changer” as an assistive technology because of what it allows for people who are ostensibly immobile due to their disability. To wit, Lee acknowledged the fact not everyone leaves near a bus stop or train stop, let alone have a driver’s license. Ergo, the rise of autonomous driving means a vehicle like Cruise’s will “reliably come get you,” Lee said to me.

Ultimately, fully autonomous vehicles will enable a newfound freedom for the disability community. A person like Lee can go anywhere, at any time, without being at the mercy of public transit’s machinations or the goodwill of other people.

The bottom line has no hyperbole: self-driving cars is accessibility at its zenith.

“It’s going to enable independence,“ Lee said. “It’s going to enable freedom to move about as you want and live your life. I am so excited for the day that Origin Mobility is on the streets. I dream of it honestly—I have to always rely on somebody to drive me, or a bus driver, a train conductor, Uber driver, Lyft driver, or taxi driver. [With autonomous cars], I’m not always relying on someone. I want to want to go places and I want to do things. I know I’m not alone in that. People with disabilities want to live life. This is going to really be a game-changer.”

Cruise is actively soliciting feedback on its efforts with the Accessibility Council and the Origin Mobility. The company has an open call for interested parties to join its accessibility research studies, which Cruise says is a paid opportunity.

California Reconsiders its Policy on Autonomous Vehicles

By Katherine Q. Zhang, Scott Scoop

A new bill introduced by the California Department of Motor Vehicles in late January requires a trained human safety operator to be present whenever a heavy-duty autonomous vehicle operates on public roads.

If the legislation authored by Assemblymember Cecilia Aguiar-Curry and principally co-authored by Assemblymembers Tom Lackey and Ash Kalra is passed, self-driving trucks over 10,001 pounds will be required to have a safety driver behind the wheel. 

According to the American Trucking Association, there is a shortage of truck drivers, with 78,000 jobs available in 2022 and 160,000 expected openings by 2031 due to the aging workforce. Autonomous vehicles (AVs) are a potential solution to this problem.

“We believe AVs hold a promise to improve road safety and to offer new mobility options to millions of people,” said Aiden Ali-Sullivan, manager of state policy and government affairs for Waymo LLC.

The shortage of drivers in the trucking industry has been a significant factor motivating companies to explore AVs as a solution. According to Jonny Morris, the head of corporate affairs at Embark Trucks Inc, the cost of hiring and retaining drivers and the difficulty in finding qualified and reliable ones has put a strain on the industry for years.

“Drivers do a lot more than just drive a truck: they’re involved in a lot of record keeping and human interactions with shippers. Their expertise and improvisation are often valued for off-highway environments,” Morris said.

AVs have the potential to address this issue by reducing labor costs and allowing companies to operate trucks around the clock without the need for breaks or rest time. It also opens opportunities for new jobs.

“We anticipate that several new roles will emerge as part of operations over time, including Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) drivers, transfer hub operations, and yard operations like AV inspections and refueling,” Ali-Sullivan said.

California first allowed the operation of autonomous trucks weighing up to 10,001 pounds on state roads in 2014 with a driver, then in 2018, allowed testing without a driver.  

A group of companies, including Waymo, Aurora, TuSimple, Einride, Uber Freight, and UPS, wrote to California Governor Gavin Newsom in June 2022 to request permission to operate larger AV trucks on state roads. The letter urged the state to increase the allowed weight of AV trucks from 10,000 pounds to 80,000 pounds, arguing that this would improve efficiency and safety in the industry. 

According to Richard Steiner, the head of policy and communications at Gatik, it is important to note that AVs on public roads are still in the testing phase, and any expansion of their use would need to be carefully evaluated and regulated to ensure safety and prevent accidents. 

Expanding on what would happen once AVs are fully developed and approved for on-the-road travel, Ali-Sullivan added his vision for the future.

“We anticipate that once approved, the economic benefits to California will occur very gradually and grow over time. There will be a testing and development process for a new expansion of operations and a longer ramp-up period for us to build out infrastructure,” Ali-Sullivan said.

Why USA Truck’s former CEO joined Kodiak Robotics

By David Taube, Transport Dive

Former USA Truck CEO James Reed recently shifted into the role of COO at autonomous truck tech company Kodiak Robotics.

Reed talked with Transport Dive about his background, Kodiak’s autonomous trucking technology and his decision to join the AV tech firm.

The executive talked about how autonomous trucking could improve lifestyles for drivers, delved into the differences between AV tech approaches and explained why he placed his “career bet” on Kodiak.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

TRANSPORT DIVE: Why were you drawn to Kodiak?

JAMES REED: Our company was exploring the autonomous space, and we weren’t working exclusively with Kodiak. So we were moving freight with some autonomous vehicle providers, just trying to dip our toe in the water and understand it, and we had formed a really good relationship with Kodiak.

On the merits of ability to go to market, I thought Kodiak’s mirror pod solution, as far as mapping goes, was frankly the most scalable and maybe even the most clever way to go to market. So I was like, ‘If I’m gonna place a bet, this is where I’ve placed my career bet.’ And I really liked the team, too.

TRANSPORT DIVE: How you are you seeing Kodiak stack up against its competition? Could you elaborate on Kodiak’s technology?

REED: It’s been Kodiak’s intention from the get-go to move sensor suites into the mirror pods. Being able to replace a pod quickly and efficiently and keep the truck moving is a lot easier than the alternatives.

Many in the industry are using high-density mapping. Once they create that fully featured map, the vehicle essentially drives, which is great — until the map’s wrong.

The technology needs to recognize two things. First, it needs to recognize that the map doesn’t match what it’s ‘seeing’ — I’ll use that word. And then it needs to perceive what it’s seeing and devise a reaction to it. So at some level, perception will be required of most solutions. That’s my layperson understanding of it.

At Kodiak, we define lane parameters. So we’ll drive a lane. In our mapping, we will map the lane markers. And then we deploy a vehicle shortly thereafter. And that vehicle can go in autonomous mode, understanding where the lane markers are, calculating a forward path every millisecond to predict where it should go. So it’s really a low overhead way to deploy perception into the autonomous space. It’s pretty brilliant.

TRANSPORT DIVE: There’s been this tension between new technology and what that might do to jobs. Have you seen this resistance play out firsthand?

REED: One of the interesting innovations in trucks was when when automatic transmissions came into long-haul trucking. So fast forward into the early 2010s: It’s really hard to recruit a driver. Some of the newer drivers didn’t know how to drive anything but an automatic. … And for fleets, it was cheaper to run automatic transmissions, better fuel economy, you could get more drivers because you get these guys and gals with automatic designations on their CDLs into the trucks. And the old timers hated it, saying ‘I’ll never drive an automatic.’ Well, I can give you names of dozens of drivers that have been driving 30–40 years, who now wouldn’t drive anything other than an automatic.

I’m not saying that’s a perfect corollary for autonomy, but today, we have a driver shortage. It’s approaching 80,000 drivers and projected to worsen. As you look forward, we’ve got an opportunity in the transportation industry to ameliorate and to alleviate the challenge around driver recruitment by supplementing it with autonomous vehicles. You’re much more likely to push jobs to the types of jobs that drivers like, such as being home daily. Local jobs are going to be much more prevalent, especially if we can fill that middle mile section, which is our intent with autonomous technology.

TRANSPORT DIVE: If other executives are considering a similar move from traditional trucking companies to self-driving companies, what advice do you have for them?

REED: It’s the same advice that I have for investors. It’s the same advice that I have for potential customers: Get educated and form an opinion. I mean, my choice to join Kodiak was a well-informed choice that’s taken five years to develop an opinion about the industry. I would caution them to be careful to make sure that this is a space that they understand and that they want to have a voice in. I truly believe in the technology. I believe it’s further along than most people realize.

If somebody thinks they’re wired that way, by all means, call Kodiak first.

Clemson University to Launch Nation’s First Bachelor of Science Program in Automotive Engineering

By ClemsonNews,

Clemson University is launching the nation’s first undergraduate Bachelor of Science program in automotive engineering to meet the rapidly changing needs of an industry that is starting to trade the internal combustion engine for batteries and human drivers for self-driving cars.

The new program solidifies Clemson’s position as the premier University for automotive engineering research and education in the Southeast and beyond and adds to the offerings at its award-winning Greenville campus, the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research (CU-ICAR).

The degree program’s creators expect it will help meet massive demand for a new breed of automotive engineer to lead the design and manufacture of cars and trucks that are quickly becoming computers on wheels powered by electricity.

“Clemson University will continue to lead the way for automotive engineering,” said President Jim Clements. “We are at the heart of the Southeast’s auto industry, and as South Carolina’s leading provider of engineering talent, Clemson is uniquely positioned to launch the nation’s first Bachelor of Science degree in automotive engineering. Through working in tandem with industry, state and federal partners, we are able to shape the future of mobility and create a robust workforce.”

Students can expect an interdisciplinary curriculum with a strong experiential learning component that is aimed at preparing them for the future of automotive manufacturing with an emphasis on cutting-edge technologies ranging from electric vehicles, advanced materials, advanced manufacturing and semiconductors to e-hailing, artificial intelligence and autonomous vehicle software.

The program’s creators expect it to launch with as many as 30 students in fall 2023 and grow to over 200 by fall 2027.

Undergraduates majoring in automotive engineering will be based on the main campus for their first two years, providing them the opportunity to immerse themselves in the full Clemson Experience, including cheering on the Tigers football team in Memorial Stadium, swimming in Lake Hartwell and eating ice cream at the ’55 Exchange.

For their final two years, students will shift to CU-ICAR, a campus that is home to Clemson’s automotive engineering faculty and graduate program. On the campus, they will be able to take full advantage of the unique experimental facilities and the expertise located there.

A bus service already in place connects CU-ICAR to the main campus 45 minutes away.

Clemson launched its graduate program in automotive engineering in 2006 and was the first university in the country to graduate a Ph.D. student in automotive engineering and the first to graduate a woman with a Ph.D. in automotive engineering.

Zoran Filipi, founding director of the School of Mechanical and Automotive Engineering, said Clemson will build on talent and infrastructure already in place to create the undergraduate program.

“Some of the world’s leading thought leaders and most creative innovators in automotive engineering are on the faculty in the School of Mechanical and Automotive Engineering,” Filipi said. “We offer cutting-edge facilities, impactful learning experiences and opportunities to collaborate closely with industry partners. Clemson is uniquely positioned to lead in automotive engineering at both the graduate and undergraduate levels.”

Clemson also has a unique geographic advantage that helps position the University to offer the program. The auto industry in South Carolina employs 74,000 and has an economic impact of $27 billion, according to the state Department of Commerce.

The broader Southeast region is home to a growing number of Original Equipment Manufacturers. Within 500 miles of Clemson, the community includes BMW, Volvo, Proterrra, Mercedes-Benz Vans, Honda, Tesla, Ford, General Motors, Toyota, Mazda, Nissan and Kia. Each brings a network of suppliers that also create jobs.

The switch to autonomous and electric cars could create as many as 115,000 additional U.S. automotive and mobility industry jobs in the coming decade, including 45,000 for mobility engineers alone, according to a 2019 report by Boston Consulting Group.

Several recent investments that are helping create those jobs in South Carolina were mentioned in Gov. Henry McMaster’s Jan. 25 State of the State address.

To name a few examples:

  • Redwood Materials will invest $3.5 billion for a new battery materials recycling facility, the single largest announcement in the history of South Carolina.
  • BMW is investing $1 billion to prepare its Spartanburg plant to produce electric vehicles and $700 million to build a new, high-voltage battery assembly facility.
  • Bosch plans to invest $200 million in Anderson County to create the company’s first production operation of fuel cell technology in the United States and another $260 million as Bosch launches production of electric motors in Dorchester County to support the U.S. market demand for electrified vehicles.

Those three investments alone are expected to create 2,500 jobs.

Laine Mears, chair of the Department of Automotive Engineering, said demand for automotive engineers is soaring.

“The entire global automotive industry is turning on a dime, and Clemson is stepping up to take the lead to meet industry’s changing needs for both technology and workforce,” he said. “The new undergraduate degree will be a truly integrative program that brings together talent from across a spectrum of disciplines, preparing students for the challenges of the future.”

Students will start with a General Engineering curriculum that includes calculus, physics and other foundational courses required of engineering majors at Clemson. After their first year, students will be eligible to begin taking automotive engineering classes.

By their senior year, students will be ready to work on Deep Orange prototype vehicles as capstone projects.

Those who complete the undergraduate program will receive a Bachelor of Science in automotive engineering. Students who decide to join the first cohort are currently in their first year in college and would be on track to graduate in 2026.

Srikanth Pilla, the ExxonMobil Employees Endowed Chair and Professor of Automotive Engineering, led the development of the curriculum for the new undergraduate program.

“While the new degree program was created in an automotive context, the curriculum has been designed broadly enough that impactful experiences will reach far beyond the car, and students will be well-qualified for a number of careers in the mobility and technology workforces,” said Pilla, who is also the founding director of AIM for Composites Energy Frontier Research Center and the Clemson Composites Center.

“Employers could range from car and aerospace companies to the U.S. Army and software companies such as Google, Apple and Meta. This is a robust curriculum filled with hands-on learning experiences aimed at preparing students to make a contribution on day one of their careers.”

The undergraduate degree adds to a growing list of marquee programs at CU-ICAR that include:

  • A graduate program that has graduated 791 master’s students and 100 Ph.D. students, with virtually all finding jobs in the automotive industry or academia
  • Deep Orange, a program that gives students a chance to design and build a prototype vehicle, mirroring the experience of working at an original equipment manufacturer or supplier
  • Virtual Prototyping of Autonomy-Enabled Ground Systems (VIPR-GS), an organization that is part of a research partnership aimed at developing innovative virtual prototyping tools to design the next generation of autonomy-enabled, on- and off-road vehicles, with the U.S. government committing up to $100 million
  • AIM for Composites, an Energy Frontier Research Center that is advancing how composite materials are created through artificial intelligence and inverse engineering

Clemson’s new undergraduate program will differ from automotive specialties in traditional departments and automotive. While technology programs concentrate on manufacturing, routine design, construction and end operations, Clemson is going beyond the technical requirements by creating an automotive engineering degree that will focus on advanced design, development and technical management of the vehicle realization process.

Anand Gramopadhye, dean of the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences, said Clemson’s new undergraduate degree program will help meet workforce needs for the growing automotive industry.

“This multidisciplinary program brings together top talent, cutting-edge facilities and impactful experiences to create the leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs of the future,” he said. “By creating the future workforce, the program will help strengthen the automotive industry in South Carolina and the broader Southeastern region. I thank the team that designed the new program and congratulate its members on a job well done.”

Amazon’s Self-Driving Car Shuttles People on Public Roads for First Time

By Ed Ludlow, Bloomberg News

Zoox Inc., the self-driving startup owned by Inc., carried passengers in its fully autonomous vehicle on public roads for the first time.

In February, the electric vehicle, which doesn’t have a steering wheel, ran a mile-long route carrying staff between Zoox’s two main buildings in Foster City, Calif., the company said in a statement. The firm will now operate a shuttle for employees on the same trip while it seeks additional clearances to expand its service to the public.

The company said the robotaxi trip marks the first time that a vehicle designed without human controls has carried passengers on a public road.

Zoox’s driverless testing permit, which it has held since September 2020, was extended by California to include the purpose-built robotaxi. To date, Zoox’s public-road testing has been limited to a fleet of retrofitted gas-powered cars that carry sensors powering the self-driving technology.

Zoox, which Amazon acquired in 2020 for an undisclosed sum, is racing a collection of startups, including General Motors Co.’s Cruise, to deploy robotaxis. Meanwhile, scrutiny of the technology over safety concerns is increasing.

On Feb. 3, Cruise said it had received permission from California’s department of motor vehicles to test its own Origin shuttle on the state’s public roads. They have not yet done so.

The Zoox robotaxi doesn’t have traditional controls or pedals and can carry four passengers split across two inward facing rows of seats. On the Foster City route, it will travel at a top speed of 35 miles per hour.

Zoox unveiled its robotaxi at the end of 2020 and has been conducting testing at its own facility.

Move forward on Self-Driving Legislation for Kentucky

By Jeff Farrah, Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association

Each year, far too many Kentuckians lose their lives in motor vehicle crashes, with 734 traffic fatalities in 2022 alone. Nationally, roadway deaths are roughly equivalent to an airplane crashing every day. These tragic statistics don’t include the thousands of injuries and property damage that occur each year, often due to preventable reasons like impaired or distracted driving. Drivers on their cell phones are between 2-6 times more likely to crash. Fortunately, autonomous vehicles (AVs)—which use advanced technology to perform the entire driving task without human involvement—will save lives in Kentucky if policymakers take action to realize these benefits.

Unlike human-operated motor vehicles, AVs are deliberately designed to improve safety conditions since AVs don’t speed, they don’t drive under the influence, and they don’t drive distracted. By passing legislation like House Bill (HB) 135 to support safe and swift AV deployment and commercialization, Kentucky policymakers can introduce a paradigm shift for the state’s safety, mobility, and economic growth.

Autonomous vehicles (AVs) have a variety of use cases, including passenger cars engaged in ride-hailing, zero-occupancy delivery vehicles, shuttles, and trucks. AVs are equipped with an “automated driving system” consisting of advanced technology, such as machine vision and artificial intelligence, and hardware that gives the vehicle a 360-degree view that far exceeds the visibility of a human driver. Because AVs do not have a human responsible for the driving process, they can make better, quicker decisions. One company found that their AV was able to avoid or mitigate 88 out of 91 real-world crashes. In short, AVs are purpose-built for safety.

The first step toward realizing the benefits of AVs in Kentucky is passing legislation establishing a legal framework authorizing AV operations. Under the leadership of Representative Josh Bray, House Bill (HB) 135 forges a pathway for the deployment of the technology while ensuring AVs meet high safety standards, comply with all traffic laws, and respond to law enforcement.

In addition to increased safety, AVs will further Kentucky’s economic growth and new highs for job creation and private investment—including in advanced manufacturing industries. Autonomous trucks will also boost the state’s status as a leader in supply chains and logistics. Companies like DHL and Amazon rely on Kentucky for their shipping hubs because the state is located within a day’s drive of two-thirds of the U.S. population. These same companies (and many more) are exploring AV trucks to increase delivery speed and efficiencies between warehouses and consumers. AV trucks are critically important because, according to the American Trucking Association, there is a shortage of 80,000 drivers—and that figure is expected to double by 2030. A study from the U.S. Department of Transportation confirmed that AVs would increase investment spending across all sectors, grow the U.S. economy, and create jobs without mass layoffs for drivers.

Furthermore, the disability community, elderly individuals, and Kentucky residents living in transportation deserts all stand to benefit from the new mobility opportunities brought about by the broad deployment of AVs. Whether delivering groceries and essential goods to those in need or giving the underprivileged a new sense of independence, AVs will help people and goods get where they need to go.

Over 20 states have already passed legislation explicitly authorizing AV operation on public roads, including neighboring states like Tennessee and West Virginia. Without an AV law of its own, Kentucky might cede economic and innovation leadership to surrounding states and risks being passed over as commercial partnerships are established.

Enacting HB 135 into law will help boost supply chain resilience and usher in high-quality jobs for Kentucky residents while making Kentucky roads safer and more accessible for those in need. I urge Kentucky lawmakers to pass this bill and deliver it for Kentucky road users, consumers, and businesses.

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.