Reliable tractor trailer parts are essential to the trucking industry, and so are drivers. But how long will drivers be necessary?
Quite a while, at least if 22-year-old founder of one autonomous truck manufacturer gets his way.
Fast Company reports:
“The first fully autonomous trucks will be here earlier than anyone expects, and the last will be here much later,” says Alex Rodrigues, the 22-year-old founder of Embark, a driverless trucking startup with the novel idea of partnering with the trucking industry rather than rolling over it. Embark has created a unique model for trucking–one that Rodrigues says will actually create more trucking jobs (at least in the short run). The company’s theory that a robot-human partnership can work started being put to the test last month, when an Embark truck began to deliver shipments on behalf of Frigidaire.
Embark’s retrofitted 18-wheelers can already drive themselves while on interstate highways. Where it gets tricky is near cities, which are still too complex for driverless trucks to navigate. To compensate, Embark operates hand-off depots, where a skilled human takes over for the last few miles of driving. Currently, the highway portion of the trip, where the truck drives itself, is overseen by a team of two drivers who switch off regularly so they can stay alert while monitoring the system, and an engineer; the expectation is that eventually those drivers won’t be needed at all.
So, if those long-haul drivers aren’t needed, how is it that Embark’s plan works in favor of the industry. The key to that lies in the fact that the long-haul trucking industry faces a shortage as current drivers retire without sufficient new drivers to replace them.
“There’s a job shortage in long-haul because younger generations just don’t want to be away,” says Embark’s Rodrigues. His company’s model takes that into account, by providing self-driving trucks for undesirable long-haul routes and drivers for more desirable regional and intracity routes.