Category: self-driving trucks

Leaked Emails: Tesla Will Soon Test “Platoons” of Electric, Driverless Trucks on Public Roads

Tesla’s Other Self-Driving Vehicle

It’s no secret that Tesla has plans to build an electric semi-truck: the idea was floating around as early as September 2016. CEO and founder Elon Musk confirmed in April this year that an electric truck was indeed in the works, and a working prototype is expected to come out this September. Now, a leaked email exchange between Tesla and the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), seen by Reuters, reveal that the company is developing electric, self-driving semis that move in “platoons” trailing a lead vehicle.

The email conversations dated from May and June 2017 included Tesla and various representatives of the Nevada DMV discussing potential road trials for prototype semis — which could be the first such test run on the city’s roads for autonomous trucks without a person in the cab. In one of these exchanges, Tesla regulatory official Nasser Zamani wrote to DMV official April Sanborn about the agenda for a July 16 meeting.

“To insure we are on the same page, our primary goal is the ability to operate our prototype test trucks in a continuous manner across the state line and within the States of Nevada and California in a platooning and/or Autonomous mode without having a person in the vehicle,” Zamani wrote. Then, on July 10, Zamani asked the DMV for testing license terms. No particular date was mentioned, however, as to when this road testing would be.

Nevada DMV spokesperson Jessica Gonzalez told Reuters that Tesla requested for a meeting with California officials on Wednesday “to talk about Tesla’s efforts with autonomous trucks,” as well as to introduce new staff.

The Road to Autonomous Trucks

Tesla is hardly the first to work on developing driverless trucks. Its most popular competition comes from Uber and Waymo, Google’s former autonomous vehicle development company now under its parent firm Alphabet Inc. Both Uber, working with startup Otto, and Waymo have already done tests with their self-driving trucks, which puts Tesla a little bit behind. European luxury car brand Mercedes Benz also revealed back in 2015 that it’s working on its own driverless truck, as well as an autonomous bus.

There are also a number of Silicon Valley startups working on platooning technology for fleets of long-haul trucks. Among these is automated vehicle technology company Peloton, whose current work involves several truck makers including Volvo. Peloton considers platooning as an important precursor to autonomy when it comes to long-haul driverless trucks, in order to increase safety and efficiency.

With all these efforts, it seems that self-driving trucks are close to becoming a reality. Yet Tesla is unique in developing an all-electric version — and for good reason. One of the greatest challenges truck manufacturers and autonomous vehicle companies face is battery range limitations. Venkat Viswanathan, a lithium ion battery researcher from Carnegie Mellon, told Reuters that long-haul electric trucks aren’t commercially feasible yet. Such trucks would require huge batteries, he said, so the “cargo essentially becomes the battery.”

Perhaps this is an area where Tesla has an edge over its competitors, thanks to its experience with developing powerful batteries. In any case, with barely a month before the promised prototype, we can’t wait to see just what Musk’s electric autonomous semi could offer. If you’re driving through Nevada, keep an eye out — the road testing might soon follow afterwards.

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UberFreight is Taking on the Trucking Industry

Surge-Pricing and Trucking

The popular ride-hailing company Uber has recently launched a new website for its large-scale delivery service called UberFreight. And while very little information about the new service is forthcoming, we can safely assume that this truck delivery service is connected to Uber’s acquisition of the self-driving cargo startup Otto last August.

“We don’t have any new information to share at the moment, but hope to in the new year so please do stay in touch,” an Uber spokesperson told Inverse.

Little else is revealed on the site, except that it’s open for both carriers and shippers. People can sign up to drive delivery trucks across the country, while others can send packages using the service without the usual contracts required by established shipping companies.

It’s clear, however, that UberFreight won’t be using Otto’s trucks just yet.

Last October, the Uber-Otto tandem successfully conducted the first autonomous truck delivery test drive. If these developments are any indication, we can surmise that UberFreight is intended to be an autonomous truck delivery service. Uber has previously announced that it plans to have Otto’s self-driving trucks on the road by 2017.

Credits: UberFreight, screenshot
A look at UberFreight’s new web portal. Credits: UberFreight, screenshot

The Long Haul

It’ll certainly be a while before autonomous trucks hit the road. Which is precisely why establishing UberFreight this early in the game is ideal. Right now, it’s about data acquisition and processing: running UberFreight will give Uber access to enormous quantities of real-life data that can help prepare for and improve the eventual autonomous hauling service it plans to implement using Otto’s trucks. The self-driving vehicles can learn from experienced drivers; the delay, meanwhile, also gives government regulators some much-needed time to figure out how to govern autonomous trucks.

It’s interesting to note that Otto had similar plans prior to its acquisition by Uber.

In its October test run, Uber showed that the Otto autonomous trucks would still be monitored by a human being that works more as an operator than a driver. This setup can help mitigate the eventual job displacement expected to be created by autonomous freight trucks. Long haul truck drivers could possibly work as long haul operators in the near future.

With Uber’s resources and Otto’s technology, this new service enters a previously unexplored market that’s been steadily garnering attention from the likes of the Nikola Motor Company and even Tesla. Right now, it’s baby steps; but each faltering step forward with UberFreight will pave the way for an almost incredible future, one in which that long-haul semi you see beside you on the highway is driven by an algorithm, not a crusty truck driver.

Which begs the next question: what will become of all those seedy truck stops across the country?

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