Autonomous Trucking Hits Rocky Road

As startups falter, established OEMs continue to bolster their automated-driving capabilities.

Algolux perception technology in two views, combining regular computer vision plus depth. (Daimler Truck AG)

Within a four-week stretch – from roughly mid-February to mid-March – a steady stream of autonomous-trucking news hit. A quick summary: As several startups in the autonomous-truck development space struggle financially, established OEMs keep trucking with acquisitions and partnerships to bolster their automated-driving capabilities.

On March 3, the cofounder and CEO of Embark Trucks, which was founded in 2016, sent an email to all its employees announcing the company’s likely imminent closure. “The last nine months have been tough for the autonomous trucking industry, and for Embark – the capital markets have turned their backs on pre-revenue companies, just as slipping manufacturer timelines have delayed the prospect of scaled commercial deployment,” Alex Rodrigues wrote.

The company laid off about 70% of its employees and shut down its offices in Southern California and Houston. Embark’s remaining personnel are winding down its day-to-day operations and evaluating options to sell assets, restructure or shut down completely.

Embark’s announcement was preceded by a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story reporting that autonomous platooning developer Locomation was closing its doors. The unsurprising culprit: an inability to raise additional investment capital. However, CEO and cofounder Çetin Meriçli denies that the company is shuttering, according to a Heavy Duty Trucking report. He told the publication that Locomation reduced most of its “non-engineering headcount in the face of economic headwinds,” but that 200-mile (320-km) platooning runs employing its human-guided autonomy were still ongoing.

More disruption on the autonomous-development front came this past December, when TuSimple and Navistar made a brief joint statement ending their co-development agreement signed in 2020. “I decided to return as TuSimple’s CEO to address the challenges ahead and to set us on a path to long-term stability,” Cheng Lu said in the statement.

Navistar considers autonomous driving technologies to be “a key component of a future transportation and logistics system,” according to VP Srinivas Gowda. The truck maker indicated to Truck & Off-Highway Engineering that it has something in the works: “We will have more to share on our autonomous strategy and technology development in the coming weeks,” a spokesperson asserted in December.

Meanwhile, Daimler Truck and its subsidiary Torc Robotics forge ahead, agreeing to acquire Algolux Inc. for its IP and expertise in the areas of computer vision and machine learning. Torc has been working with the Montreal-based startup for a year-plus on multiple perception concepts and methods for improving object detection and distance estimation. Algolux software, which currently is operating on initial Freightliner Cascadia test vehicles in the U.S., is expected to play a role in Daimler’s goal to bring SAE Level 4 autonomous trucks into series production within this decade.

Likewise, Volvo Autonomous Solutions (VAS) is advancing its expertise by partnering with Ascend LLC, the first asset-based carrier to reserve capacity for VAS’s hub-to-hub autonomous offering based on Volvo’s VNL long-haul truck utilizing the Aurora Driver automated-driving system. VAS hubs in Dallas and Houston, Texas, will complete the linehaul movement to destination hubs from which Ascend drivers will take loads to their final destinations.

On a cautiously positive note for automated-trucking startups, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based Aurora Innovation appears on track to scale operations in preparation for commercial launch in 2024. Amazon and Toyota remain shareholders in the company. “This will be a historic year for Aurora as we prepare our autonomous trucking fleet for commercial launch,” cofounder and CEO Chris Urmson said in a January statement.

Buckle up: 2023 promises more bumps in the road to autonomy.