Who Needs Autonomous Trucks?

Article By : Egil Juliussen

So, where are we with autonomous trucks? Who will be needing them? How are they developing them? And with whom are they testing them?

So, where are we with autonomous trucks? Who will be needing them? How are they developing them? And with whom are they testing them? In the previous column, I summarized the status and leading players that are developing software platforms for autonomous trucks (AT). In this column, I will take a closer look at the potential users of AT software platforms. I have used three categories of AT software platform users:
  • Logistics fleets (top row in figure). Examples are UPS, FedEx, DHL, Amazon, Walmart.
  • Truck OEMs (second row). Examples are Daimler, Navistar, Paccar, Mack, Volvo Trucks.
  • Trucking fleets (bottom row). Examples are U.S. Xpress, McLane, NFI, J.B. Hunt, Schneider.
My previous column had a figure of the relationships between the AT software platform and their potential users, which is also part of this column. But the updated figure below shows a few more relationship arrows than the previous version. The lines in the figure shows autonomous truck testing relations that the AT software platform companies have publicly disclosed. There are undoubtedly more relationships and more will be disclosed in the future. Few logistics companies have released information on autonomous truck testing. However, autonomous truck technology is crucial for future success and most are likely doing something. Many of the truck OEMs have done R&D into autonomous trucking and some have picked partners. Their big decision is whether to develop their own AT software platform or cooperate with an AT software platform specialist. Many of the trucking fleet companies are on the sidelines today or no information is available, but a few innovators are already participating. Many of the future users of AT software platforms have not chosen their strategy and supplier yet. That creates a lot of arrows with question marks in the figure. In the next months and years, the figure will get a lot more arrow connections as more autonomous truck relationships are added and changed.
(Source: Egil Juliussen) Click the above to enlarge.
I will first cover some of the AT software platform companies that was not included in the previous column. Aurora Aurora was founded in 2017 and is located in Palo Alto, California and has about 500 employees currently. Aurora has three AV-experienced founders, including its CEO, who led Waymo’s AV effort before co-founding Aurora. The Aurora Driver is an AV software platform that is focused on multiple AV use-cases — robotaxis, autonomous trucks and goods delivery. The Aurora Driver has been integrated with six different vehicle categories — multiple sedans, SUV, minivan, large commercial vehicle and a Class 8 truck. Aurora is focused on virtual AV testing first, with road testing following when the Aurora Driver has passed thousands of virtual tests. Aurora is doing millions of virtual miles per day. Aurora is also developing its Aurora Ecosystem to support partners from auto OEMs and fleet operators ranging from mobility services to logistics, goods and fleet management services. The core of the ecosystem is the Aurora Driver software and the Driver hardware. The Aurora Cloud is another key technology, which is a single interface for its partners. The Aurora Driver and Aurora Ecosystem is designed for middle-mile trucking applications and last-mile goods delivery. Aurora is just entering the autonomous truck segment and does not have any disclosed testing activities with any trucking organizations. Amazon is an Aurora investor and will be a major autonomous truck player sooner or later. Other logistics companies are potential Aurora customers. With Aurora acquiring Uber ATG and its 1,200 employees, Aurora will have more resources and investor, which should pay-off long-term. It is also likely that the integration of Aurora and Uber ATG will take time and management effort. It still looks like a win-win. Other AV Software Platforms Embark Trucks was founded in 2016 and is headquartered in San Francisco. It has received VC investment of over $115 million. Embark’s autonomous trucks are already moving freight for five unnamed Fortune 500 companies in the southwest U.S. Embark’s fleet generates revenue by hauling commercial loads between suburban Los Angeles and Arizona. Embark is investing in transfer hubs or facilities near highways where its autonomous trucks can pick up trailers hauled from nearby warehouses or cargo distribution centers. Embark has done autonomous truck testing with Ryder, Frigidaire and Amazon. Embark also have a relationship with Peterbuilt, which is part of Paccar. Kodiak Robotics is an autonomous truck startup that was founded in 2018 in Mountain View, California. It has VC investment in the $40 million range. Kodiak is on a path to be a trucking company using its own autonomous software platform. The advantage is that it is bringing in freight revenue for most of its testing, but the R&D costs are very high compared to competing fleet operators. This strategy is different from other AT software platform companies. Kodiak is using the hub-to-hub trucking model where the AV software drives on the highway and a truck driver is in control for the first and last mile. Kodiak is using a safety driver as a backup for highway miles and it will likely be several years until driverless highway operation is deployed. Kodiak has a facility in the Dallas area, and has been running daily commercial loads between Dallas and Houston since September 2019. It currently operates 10 autonomous trucks. Kodiak released its Safety Report in October 2020. Truck Manufacturers The truck manufacturers use a variety of strategies. A few have their own development, but most are cooperating with AT software platform companies or are delaying their decisions. Daimler Daimler has been investing in autonomous truck technology for several years. It bought one of the AV software pioneers, Torc Robotics, in March 2019 and has since ramped up its AT testing. Daimler is the leading truck manufacturer and should have the resources to develop its own autonomous truck platform. But Daimler announced a strategic partnership with Waymo in October 2020. Daimler said the autonomous Freightliner Cascadia truck equipped with the Waymo Driver will go into commercial production in a few years. I think this is a strong indicator that even major truck manufacturers will rely on the leading AV software platform suppliers. Volkswagen VW has multiple truck brands such as Traton, which owns two truck brands—Scania and MAN. In September 2020, Traton announced a partnership with TuSimple to develop autonomous trucks. As part of the deal, Traton has taken a minority stake in TuSimple. Traton and TuSimple will test L4 autonomous trucks on a hub-to-hub routes in Sweden, and later in Germany. Traton also has partial ownership in Navistar and has recently offered to acquire all of Navistar. TuSimple and Navistar are also cooperating in autonomous truck testing and Navistar has a small ownership share in TuSimple. With VW also relying on autonomous technology from an AV software platform specialist, this is another indicator that most truck manufacturers will not develop their own AV software platforms. VW is already using the same strategy by using Argo.ai for AV software for its small vehicles. Paccar Paccar has three truck brands—Peterbilt, Kenworth and DAF. Kenworth showed a proof-of-concept autonomous Class 8 truck at CES 2020. Peterbilt has cooperated with Embark Trucks on autonomous truck testing. I believe it is unlikely that Paccar will develop its own autonomous trucks software platform. The current R&D effort will give Paccar the knowledge to pick future partner. Volvo Truck Volvo Trucks is one of the leading truck OEMs and has an extensive worldwide distribution network. Volvo Trucks are using autonomous technology in its mining equipment and related vehicles. It has also done proof-of-concept R&D for autonomous trucks. Volvo Trucks have not publicly chosen an autonomous truck software supplier to work with yet. It is not clear whether Volvo Trucks will develop its own AV software platform or use a partner. Other truck OEMs The other truck OEMs in the above figure has not publicly said much about their autonomous truck plans. Mack is a significant player in the U.S. and is owned by Renault. Iveco is headquartered in Netherlands and is important in the European market. Hino is the leading Japanese truck OEM and primarily makes small and medium size trucks. From the above figure some of the Chinese truck OEMs are cooperating with Plus (formerly Plus.ai) and Inseptio. Dongfeng and Foton are partners with Inseptio. FAW is a partner with Plus. Logistics Fleets The logistics fleets are prime candidates for deploying autonomous trucks and some are among the pioneers for doing so. Some relationships were covered in AV software platforms section. A few additional comments on the logistics companies are included below. Amazon Amazon has become a leading logistics player to deliver products to its vast e-commerce customer base. It is investing and researching every transportation segment and is now focused on most autonomous vehicles use-cases. Amazon has probably tested autonomous trucks with multiple companies. For trucking operations Amazon has primarily used fleet operators—mostly contracting with independent truck drivers and small companies. Recently Amazon has started acquiring its own truck fleet. Volvo Truck and Kenworth are the main suppliers of Amazon branded trucks. This means that Amazon will also spend more attention and investments in autonomous trucks. Amazon has a variety of strategies it can use for getting its own autonomous truck software platform:
  • Amazon can use Aurora Driver AV software platform that is now moving to autonomous trucks. Amazon is a significant investor in Aurora
  • Amazon can leverage the AV software platform it now owns from the Zoox acquisition. The Zoox AV software platform is focused on robotaxis and it will take some time to add autonomous truck capabilities.
  • Amazon can use one of the AT software platforms from companies such as Embark Trucks, Ike Robotics, TuSimple and/or others. Amazon has worked with and may still be testing with Embark.
  • Amazon can use the AT software platforms that the truck OEMs chose to use for their autonomous trucks.
  • Amazon could acquire one of the AT software platform startup companies. Embark Trucks or Ike Robotics are the most likely options if Amazon goes the acquisition route.
Amazon will be a major user of autonomous trucks, but we don’t know how fast and what strategy it will use. UPS UPS is a leading logistics company and has a large truck fleet in the 20,000-unit range. UPS is a pioneer in autonomous truck testing and was an early TuSimple customers. Autonomous truck testing between Phoenix and Tucson started in May 2019. UPS has an investment in TuSimple and is likely to continue using its AT software platform. A possible future alternative for UPS is Waymo due to their goods AV testing in Phoenix, where Waymo vans pick up packages from UPS retail centers and delivers to UPS sorting centers. UPS will become a leading company in deploying autonomous trucks. UPS is also expected to be a leader in other autonomous vehicle use-cases such as last mile goods AVs. FedEx FedEx is another major logistics company that will be important in autonomous trucking. FedEx has around 30,000 trucks. FedEx and Volvo Trucks tested truck platooning technology in 2018. However, there is little public information on what FedEx is doing in autonomous trucks. FedEx has been a leader in automation and is expected to invest and deploy autonomous trucks. FedEx is investing in other AV use-cases. In February 2019, FedEx announced the FedEx SameDay Bot, a sidewalk AV to help retailers make last-mile deliveries. FedEx is collaborating with AutoZone, Lowe’s, Pizza Hut, Target, Walgreens and Walmart to assess retailers’ AV goods delivery needs. DHL DHL is a leading logistics company with worldwide operation and headquarters in Bonn, Germany. DHL is part of Deutche Post DHL Group. DHL is testing autonomous trucks with Ike Robotics in the U.S. The business model between DHL and Ike is a Software as a Service (SaaS) subscription to fleets. DHL will buy trucks equipped with Ike’s automation system from truck OEMs that are cooperating with Ike. Walmart Walmart is the largest retailer in the U.S. and the world. A key factor in Walmart’s growth has been its investment in logistics and IT technologies. Hence, Walmart is investing in multiple AV use-cases and will be a leading player in deploying AV technology. It looks like Walmart is focusing on so-called “middle-mile” AV use-case first—probably since its long-haul trucking operation is so good. Walmart began pilot testing of middle-mile AV use-cases in July 2019. Walmart’s middle-mile test is between Walmart warehouses and package pickup kiosks near its stores. Gatik is Walmart’s partner in middle-mile AV testing. In November 2020, Walmart made an agreement to test Cruise AVs for last-mile delivery in early 2021 in Scottsdale, Arizona. A key reason for testing with Cruise is that their AVs are battery electric vehicles. Others There are many other logistics companies that are leading candidates for future autonomous truck testing and deployment as the technology advances and use-cases expands. DB Schenker, a leading European logistics firm, is testing with Einride. GLP is a leading Chinese logistics company that is testing with Inseptio. Trucking Fleets There are hundreds of trucking fleets in the U.S. and at least 90 companies that have over 1,000 trucks for hire. Most will be slow to add autonomous trucks and will wait for mature technologies and proven economics advantages until they start autonomous truck testing and deployment. There are also several innovative trucking fleets that are early testers of autonomous trucks and a few are covered below. NFI operates over 4,500 trucks in its fleet. NFI is testing autonomous trucks with Ike Robotics. Ryder Logistics provide both logistics and truck fleet services. Ryder is testing autonomous trucks with Ike Robotics. Ryder has also worked with Embark in autonomous truck testing. US Xpress is a leading trucking fleet operator with nearly 7,000 trucks. Its has tested autonomous trucks with TuSimple for over two years and made an investment in TuSimple in the latest round that just closed. McLane is a grocery and food-service distributor and is owned by Berkshire Hathaway. It is testing autonomous trucks with TuSimple. Penske Truck Leasing is one of many Penske transportation and logistics companies. It has around 330,000 vehicles for lease in 1,100 locations worldwide. It is testing autonomous trucks with TuSimple. The above figure lists five more leading truck fleets which have significant potential for future autonomous truck uses. J.B, Hunt has around 15,800 trucks. Schneider has about 13,700 trucks. Landstar has over 10,500 trucks. Werner has over 7,800 trucks. Prime has over 7,200 trucks.

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