Platform-Agnostic Interface Aims to Accelerate Truck Autonomy

Embark developed an interoperable self-driving stack that works across Freightliner, International, Peterbilt and Volvo truck platforms.

Embark engineers considered cross-platform trade-offs from the start when designing the Universal Interface for multiple OEMs’ platform specifications. (Embark)

“Trucking will be the first place that self-driving vehicles make it to public roads.” That premise prompted the founding of autonomous technology developer Embark five years ago. A simplified technology problem, specifically for highway driving, and a more straightforward business case make trucking the ideal application, according to Brandon Moak, the startup’s co-founder and its chief technology officer.

Embark now expects to make the equation even simpler for OEMs and carriers. The recent introduction of the Embark Universal Interface (EUI) – a set of standardized self-driving components and flexible interfaces – allows truck OEMs to more easily integrate autonomous technology (i.e., the Embark Driver software that “perceives the world”) onto their vehicle platforms, Moak said during a recent SAE technical webinar on high-level autonomy in commercial vehicles.

Embark engineers designed the system from the start to work across four major U.S. OEMs’ platform specifications – Freightliner, International, Peterbilt and Volvo – which required an immense amount of upfront investment and thoughtfulness around cross-platform trade-offs, he said. The decision to pursue this strategy occurred in early 2020.

The Embark Gateway is an automotive-grade controller that enables API communication with OEM drive-by-wire systems. (Embark)

“The major fleets source equipment and technology from multiple manufacturers for the main reason that they can’t have a single point of failure in their fleet overall,” Moak said. “This dynamic has shaped Embark’s approach to technology development” and underscores the need for coordination among companies to standardize interfaces.

The EUI’s universality consists of a standardized components package – sensors and compute system – that have been determined through thousands of hours of design, testing and analysis. The second facet is a set of physical, electrical and software interfaces that enable the components to connect and communicate with any OEM platform’s steering, braking, throttle, telematics, power, chassis and HVAC. The Embark Gateway, an automotive-grade electronic control unit that enables API communication with OEM drive-by-wire systems, is at the heart of the interface package.

“Embark doesn’t aspire to build the lower-level vehicle platform, the chassis, the powertrain, the brakes – companies have been doing this for nearly a century and are doing a great job at it,” Moak said. “Companies like ZF are continuing to move the ball forward on building drive-by-wire platforms that we can plug into. That’s where we want to be operating, at that integration layer.”

The main challenge that Embark faces on this front is that OEMs and Tier 1s continue to iterate the design of their drive-by-wire platforms. “This is a bit of a moving target,” he said, “so strategically we built our system to be flexible in such a way that we can keep up with them and follow the developments very closely.”

The sensors package contains cameras, radars, lidars and GPS systems that provide overlapping 360-degree coverage up to 500 meters in any direction. The compute system has been “ruggedized” and is powerful enough to run the Embark Driver software on the edge.

“We are running some very high-performance AI algorithms on that. Nobody has ever put this much compute in a truck before, so we’re pushing the bleeding edge there,” Moak said. “And we have a fallback safety architecture to make sure that there isn’t a single point of failure in our technology stack.”

To ensure that the different types of steering, braking and throttle systems were within specification for the Embark Driver system, developers spent “a lot of time at the test track performing extreme maneuvers, modeling the profiles of different systems,” said Moak. “Ultimately, we get to a point where we can be compatible with actuators that come from multiple suppliers.”

Moak anticipates that OEMs will start shipping their first production trucks with redundant drive-by-wire systems in the near future. “We’re in an active dialogue with the OEs as they plan sensor and compute options to offer to different carriers for these drive-by-wire systems,” he said. The EUI program will generate “novel learnings” around standardized sensor placement, vehicle communication protocols, telematics standardization, power management and other areas that will inform Embark partnership and integration decisions with each OEM.

Further in the future, Embark expects truck OEMs to offer multiple AV options to carriers. “They’ll have multiple non-exclusive integrations when this industry ultimately matures,” Moak said. “I think carriers, the ones who actually move the trucks, make the ultimate decision on which AV system and hardware they want beneath that. We want to position ourselves to be ready for that.”

A carrier’s take on the universal interface program? “Embark’s investment to integrate its autonomous driving system with the major OEMs will allow us to test and deploy autonomous trucking capabilities without introducing a new OEM into our fleet for that sole purpose,” said Trevor Fridfinnson, chief operating officer at Bison Transport.