The trucking industry is facing a major problem. With the rise of self-driving cars, trucks are becoming obsolete. Truckers are struggling to find new jobs in an already tight job market. This article examines how the trucking industry will adapt to this change and what it could mean for other industries considering mass blockchain adoption.
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A tractor-trailer outfitted with an autonomous-driving system from technology firm TuSimple Holdings Inc. waited at a major bridge on the outskirts of Tucson, Ariz., on a recent sweltering day until the light turned green and a voice came over the intercom in the cab: “intersection clear.”
While experienced truck driver Mickie Muller sat in the driver’s seat, her hands positioned just above the wheel and feet placed near the floor pedals, the steering wheel spun and the truck turned left, sliding down a freeway on-ramp.
It was a flawlessly performed move for TuSimple, which the firm had rehearsed many times under largely ideal circumstances on a known route.
Hundreds of miles away in Cupertino, Calif., a self-driving PlusAI Corp. large rig attempted an even more ambitious operation, entering onto Interstate 280 and into the Bay Area rush hour, then carefully driving along the congested freeway on its own.
The public-road maneuvers, both brief demonstration runs with no commercial goods on board, demonstrate the promise of a technology that has attracted billions of dollars in investment. However, they demonstrate how far technology still needs to go before it can safely function without a person at the wheel, enabling semi trucks to navigate congested interstate roads, inclement weather, and construction-strewn routes.
The majority of companies are aiming towards Level 4 automation, which means the car can handle all driving duties under specific circumstances. This would indicate that the technology might be helpful to transportation firms and shippers on a larger scale, and the entrepreneurs could start making more money.
In the last four months, four prominent self-driving trucking companies, including TuSimple and Plus, have rushed to tap public markets in bids to raise large sums of money, leveraging the robust market for initial public offerings and the popularity of a vehicle known as a special-purpose acquisition company, or SPAC.
According to a Wall Street Journal study, investors have invested $5.7 billion into TuSimple, Plus, Embark Trucks Inc., and Aurora Innovation Inc. in the last year. The move to public markets puts these firms under more scrutiny and puts pressure on them to show that they can chart a route into commercial markets.
There’s still a lot of work to be done: billions of miles of testing, lobbying authorities to let trucks to operate without drivers, and persuading a sceptical freight-hauling sector to use autonomous technology in everyday operations.
A successful commercial deployment would go a long way toward restoring faith in self-driving technology, which has been under development in Silicon Valley for nearly 12 years but is currently mostly confined to small-scale test programs with human drivers. If the SPAC transactions go through, the four trucking firms will have a total of $4.2 billion to handle the problem.
Mickie Muller, a TuSimple safety driver, sits in the driver’s seat while the truck drives itself.
TuSimple, Plus, Embark, and Aurora, who are all competing for customers and truck manufacturers, claim they intend to deploy commercial driverless trucking systems in the United States in three years or fewer.
“Speed to market is certainly important,” said Patrick Dillon, TuSimple’s chief financial officer. TuSimple aims to begin mass manufacturing of trucks with its self-driving technology in 2024, thanks to a partnership with truck maker Navistar International Corp. “I don’t believe there is any advantage in waiting,” says the author.
As it refines its real-world trucking capabilities, TuSimple is conducting a limited amount of commercial freight carrying for paying clients in semis equipped with autonomous-driving technology. In February, Plus began offering a self-driving system with limited capabilities to certain freight carriers, including Amazon.com Inc., for use in their fleets.
Investors who have been frustrated by robotaxi firms’ development stumbling blocks and missed deadlines are increasingly banking on a quicker route to automation in trucking. By eliminating bad driving habits such as slamming the brakes, supporters claim they may decrease labor costs, expedite shipment times, enhance road safety, and reduce pollution and fuel expenses.
According to Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. analyst David Vernon, self-driving trucks may reduce transportation costs by 15% to 25% in the potentially huge addressable market of more than $3.4 trillion. Plus claims to be able to reduce expenses by approximately 38%, while Embark claims to provide a 45 percent per-mile cost reduction.
The front of a self-driving truck from Plus.
The Wall Street Journal/Heather Somerville
According to statistics from PitchBook Data Inc., the potential to shave costs in the low-margin trucking industry has pushed the values of these self-driving trucking companies by more than 400 percent on average over the last year.
Aurora and Embark currently have little or no trucking income, but both anticipate to break even in three years or fewer after releasing their autonomous commercial product. Plus forecasts adjusted profitability a year before its self-driving vehicle reaches the market. Their predictions are based on the premise that trucks would drive over a billion miles per year using their technology. On $1.5 million in sales, TuSimple lost $116.5 million in the second quarter.
Aurora, which is developing self-driving technology for both heavy trucks and passenger vehicles, is valued more than Knight-Swift Transportation Holdings Inc., the biggest freight carrier in the United States, thanks to the $11 billion SPAC transaction.
Aurora says it will charge a per-mile fee to trucks and ride-hailing services that use its technology, and that it compares itself to business software services like Snowflake Inc., Twilio Inc., and Shopify Inc., which make recurring revenue from large business customers and are among the top ten most valuable companies in their sector, according to an investor presentation.
Aurora’s value, according to Richard Windsor, head of research company Radio Free Mobile, which analyzes transportation technology firms, is “divorced from reality” since it doesn’t account for the intense rivalry amongst autonomous-vehicle startups. According to Aurora’s investor presentation, it will be one of a “handful of winners” that includes Alphabet Inc.’s self-driving subsidiary Waymo LLC and General Motors Co.’s driverless-car company Cruise.
Aurora claims that automating transportation would “create a market with tremendous opportunity” and that its per-mile charge model will “scale with great margins.”
TuSimple and Plus have a significant presence in China, including Chinese investors, operations, and staff. Plus claims that, via a collaboration with Chinese state-owned vehicle maker FAW Group Corp., it will begin manufacturing trucks outfitted with its technology in the third quarter and will have completely autonomous trucks in China by 2024.
A TuSimple self-driving truck’s dashboard.
On the side of a TuSimple self-driving truck, there are high-definition cameras.
TuSimple has made a few disclosures regarding an ongoing inquiry by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, or Cfius, since March. Cfius is currently looking into the specifics of how TuSimple became a U.S. domiciled business in 2017, after starting an investigation into an old TuSimple investment from an affiliate of Chinese online media giant Sina Corp.
TuSimple’s finance head, Mr. Dillon, said that the business is actively engaged in the Cfius process and is dedicated to openness.
Achieving fully autonomous vehicles is also dependent on significant variables outside the control of these businesses. Truck designers must adapt their designs to accommodate autonomous technology, which includes developing backup braking and steering systems. When a robot truck crashes, insurers will have to determine who is at blame.
There are only a half-dozen jurisdictions that allow for full commercial deployment of autonomous cars, and the regulations differ from one state to the next. Vehicles that cross state borders face challenges due to a lack of federal guidelines.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration suggested drafting regulations for the safe operation of self-driving trucks this spring, a process that might take years. According to a spokesperson for the Transportation Department, the department “strives to promote the safe and efficient transportation of interstate freight while respecting the need for local participation.”
“A change in legislation may have a big effect on these companies,” said Jake Medwell, an investor in logistics and transportation firms at venture capital company 8VC.
That hasn’t prevented dozens of logistics companies, freight carriers, and equipment manufacturers, including Amazon, Volvo AB, and United Parcel Service Inc., from investing in or forming agreements with autonomous trucking firms.
Others, on the other hand, aren’t persuaded. Lineage Logistics LLC, a cold-storage supplier for products transported by long-haul truckers, would be able to deliver perishables more rapidly with autonomous trucks since self-driving vehicles are not limited by truck-driver duty hours. But, according to Sudarsan Thattai, chief information officer of Lineage Logistics, self-driving trucks are “a long way away” due to a lack of clear legislation or advice from insurance providers.
“In a word, the business water cooler chatter is skeptical,” Mr. Thattai added. “We do not believe we will see autonomous vehicles in the next two to three years, even if it is theoretically feasible.”
In autonomous mode, a TuSimple truck travels along I-10.
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The when will self-driving trucks take over is a question that has been asked many times. Self-driving trucks are already being used, but they have their own problems.
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