Autobots

A tiny start-up partners with Peterbilt to roll out self-driving big rigs

National News Technology Transportation
A tiny start-up partners with Peterbilt to roll out self-driving big rigs. Pictured here: An Embark-branded semi-truck on the road. (Courtesy Embark)

As of 2015, over 70 percent of all freight transported in the U.S. was moved by truck. That represents a whopping $726 billion in gross revenues from trucking alone, and each year, trucks haul everything from consumer goods to livestock over billions of miles in the United States. All of those numbers are growing—so much so, that according to the American Trucking Associations, the industry is running into a major driver shortage.

Long hours, days away from home, and the stress of driving 80,000 pounds at 70 miles per hour is not for everyone, but one company is hoping to make the task easier through automation.

Embark, a small startup based in Silicon Valley, is led by a number of engineering school dropouts. Its goal is to develop affordable semi-autonomous semis using neural-net–based deep learning technology. By developing hardware that can be fitted onto existing truck models, and software that learns as it goes, Embark has quickly and cheaply developed some of the most promising autonomous vehicles in the world.

“Analyzing terabyte upon terabyte of real-world data, Embark’s DNNs have learned how to see through glare, fog, and darkness on their own,” said Alex Rodrigues, CEO and co-founder of Embark, in a statement that coincided with the introduction of the technology this spring. “We’ve programmed them with a set of rules to help safely navigate most situations, safely learn from the unexpected, and how to apply that experience to new situations going forward.”

Embark’s technology is adapted to the existing Peterbilt 579 semi-tractor trailer. (Courtesy Embark)

Rather than try to replace drivers, or redesign the trucks or roads, Embark is focusing on working with what already exists. Collaborating with Texas-based truck manufacturer Peterbilt, Embark is retrofitting the popular 579 semi models with sensors cameras and computers that can read existing roads and take over driving tasks from long-haul drivers. When the trucks must navigate more complex urban settings, the human driver takes back command.

This focus on solving the open-road problem, instead of the entire range of driving situations, has streamlined the development process. Currently Embark is one of only three companies permitted to test autonomous 18-wheeler semis on the highways of Nevada (the other two companies being Freightliner and Uber). With the Peterbilt collaboration and a recent announcement of $15 million in additional financing, Embark has become one of the leaders in the race to automate transportation.

While Google, Tesla, and a slew of other car companies target the finicky consumer market, Embark has its sights squarely on a market struggling to keep up with demand. With hundreds of billions of dollars at stake, and billions of pounds of freight being moved, it seems only likely that it will be the self-driving truck, not sports car, that we will be seeing on the road sooner rather than later.

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