Silicon Valley has its sights set on disrupting the trucking industry to make big-rigs safer and more efficient.
Silicon Valley has its sights set on the trucking industry, and for good reason.
Every time we receive a package of randomly assorted Amazon items, it was likely delivered on the back of a massive big-rig driven by one of 1.7 million truck drivers in the US. It's important, and grueling, work that was thrown into national focus for a brief moment when President Donald Trump climbed into an 18-wheeler in March.
But the job, the most common one in 29 states, is also ripe for disruption.
Medium- and heavy-duty trucks generate 23% of the US transportation sector's overall greenhouse gas emissions, and long hours combined with paltry wages lead to an extremely high turnover rate of 81%.
So when tech behemoths discuss electrifying or automating the trucking industry, it's easy to see why there's room for change. Scroll down for a breakdown of the companies trying to break into the space and what it all means:
Otto released a video of a big-rig driving itself on a public highway using cameras and sensors last May.
Otto's mission is to build trucks that could essentially drive 24/7 by allowing drivers to take naps during long trips, Otto cofounder Lior Ron told Business Insider last July. He also said the trucks would be more efficient because they wouldn't waste fuel by accelerating and braking as frequently.
The concept aims to solve the more grueling and environmentally-compromising aspects of a truck driving without causing mass employment. But whether the project will survive the lawsuit filed by Waymo remains to be seen.
Waymo is currently a leader in the self-driving-car arms race and is picking up passengers in its autonomous Chrysler Pacifica minivans, pictured above, as part of a pilot in Phoenix, Arizona.
Now the company is figuring out the best way to integrate sensors on large trucks to begin road tests in Arizona later this year, Wired reported.
"Self-driving technology can transport people and things much more safely than we do today and reduce the thousands of trucking-related deaths each year," a Waymo spokesperson told Wired.
In 2015, 4,067 people were killed and 116,000 people were injured in crashes involving large trucks, according to the latest figures provided by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Starsky is designing an aftermarket retrofit kit that will give big-rigs autonomous capabilities. The startup says its ultimate goal is to use autonomous technology to allow truck drivers to work closer to home.
Unlike Otto, Starsky's model envisions a future where drivers aren't sitting behind the wheel, Stefan Seltz-Axmache, the cofounder and CEO of Starsky, told Fortune. Instead, a trained driver will use a remote control to steer the truck from a highway exit to its final destination.
Peloton is developing driver-assistance technology that will allow trucks to platoon, or follow each other on a highway while still keeping a safe distance.
Here's how it works: the truck will automatically alert the driver if there's another Peloton truck nearby to platoon with. If both drivers elect to platoon by pressing a button, one truck will autonomously follow the other one. This way, if the lead truck brakes, the one behind it will automatically brake as well.
The Mountain View-based startup says platooning has proven fuel savings of 7%. Omintracs, which provides fleet-management software to US truck fleets, has officially partnered with Peloton to release the technology in a mass market setting.
Volvo plans to release self-driving trucks in private settings, rather than using them on public roads.
"On public roads, we’ll use the technology to support the driver, not to replace the driver," Carl Johan Almqvist, head of product safety for Volvo Trucks, told MIT Technology Review.
Last September, Volvo said it was testing a self-driving truck in a mine in northern Sweden. The truck operated 1,320 meters (just under one mile) underground as part of a project dedicated toward improving transport flow and safety in mines.
But Volvo is looking to apply self-driving tech in other private settings as well; the carmaker is currently testing autonomous garbage trucks in Sweden as part of an effort to make trash collection more efficient.
Daimler tested its semi-autonomous big-rig on a public highway in 2015 through its Freightliner truck division. The goal is to use Highway Pilot, a package of sensors and cameras, to make regular trucks safer while keeping a driver behind the wheel.
Daimler has said its semi-autonomous truck could hit the market as early as 2020.
The German automaker is also exploring battery-powered trucks and is planning a limited production run for its electric truck this year.
The 12-person team was formed in 2016 to explore how autonomous tech can improve package delivery, the Wall Street Journal first reported, but Amazon's ultimate plan is still unclear.
Amazon has invested heavily in transportation in the last year in what could be a play to develop its own shipping network and bypass parnters like UPS and FedEx.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk first expressed interest in building a semi in his "Master Plan, Part Deux" last July and is preparing for a big reveal this fall.
Musk has taken a prototype of the truck for a spin in the Tesla parking lot and said it can drive "like a sports car."
"We believe the Tesla Semi will deliver a substantial reduction in the cost of cargo transport, while increasing safety and making it really fun to operate," Musk wrote at the time.
Musk hasn't said whether the semi will come with self-driving capabilities. But considering Tesla is a leader in the autonomous space with its Autopilot technology, it's not out of the question the truck could feature advanced safety tech.
Hydrogen-powered vehicles have longer ranges and shorter re-fuel times than their electric vehicle counterparts. There are very few hydrogen stations in the US, however, to support the vehicles.
Nikola plans to make hydrogen-powered vehicles a reality by building 364 hydrogen stations across the US. The startup plans to complete its hydrogen infrastructure by 2019 and sell its hydrogen-powered truck, the Nikola One, by 2020. Nikola has said its truck can drive 800 miles on average.
It's an ambitious plan, but it highlights how startups across the US plan to use nascent technology to reduce truck emissions.
Embark has approval from the state of Nevada to test its self-driving trucks on public roads. The team behind the startup boasts former engineers from SpaceX and Audi's self-driving team, TechCrunch reported.
Embark's autonomous technology can handle glare, fog, and darkness to detect obstacles on long stretches of highway. The startup wants to use the tech to assist drivers, rather than replace them.
"This technology promises to save lives, reduce emissions, and free up billions of hours for better working, playing, and living," Embark writes on its website. "While most of the spectacle has been around passenger vehicles, we believe that commercial trucking, the backbone of our economy, stands to reap untold benefits by deploying autonomous trucks — particularly during the 'long haul' stretches."
There are still a lot of unanswered questions when it comes to electric and self-driving trucks.
Battery tech still hasn't progressed to the point where it makes sense to use electric trucks for long-haul scenarios. Daimler, for example, will first release electric trucks in cities until battery tech improves.
But until batteries can support long-range trips without completely weighing down the vehicle, platooning is currently the best bet for cutting emissions.
Meanwhile, self-driving trucks pose a serious threat to the economy as trucking remains one of the country's most common occupations.
Although most startups plan to keep drivers behind the wheel, that may not last for long as the tech advances over time. This could seriously harm metros like Joplin, Missouri that employ the largest percentage of truck drivers.
Still, the trucking industry has struggled with a growing driver shortage since 2005. These technologies could make truck driving more appealing, by allowing drivers to rest on the road, while cutting accident rates and emissions.
As the industry continues to struggle with high turnover rates and low wages, it's worth exploring solutions.