Thoughts on Autonomous Commercial Vehicles

Thoughts on Autonomous Commercial Vehicles

Everyone has an opinion on the viability of autonomous vehicles and their ultimate impact on the transportation aftermarket.

Everyone has an opinion on the viability of autonomous vehicles and their ultimate impact on the transportation aftermarket. I am glad to weigh in.

I subscribe to what Reilly Brennan calls the W.A.L.T.E.R effect of AVs – they Win Alone but Lose Together. When an AV company like Cruise demonstrates their capability of navigating city traffic and moving passengers around town efficiently and safely, they make the headlines and are rightly applauded for their technological prowess. If one of their cars runs over a pedestrian, however, Cruise, Waymo and everyone else in the AV business takes a hit with national headlines loudly proclaiming the dangers of autonomous service. It is not surprising, but what is lost in the discussion is that vehicles with human drivers hit pedestrians every day without anything but local mention (if that), and those kinds of impacts often have larger stories to tell about how they happened. It doesn’t excuse an AV company from blame, but it is wrong to accuse the entire industry of improperly functioning. 

People tend to talk about autonomous vehicles in general terms. I think it is better to group them into categories including:

  • Low speed – sidewalk and dedicated lane package delivery AV robots
  • Off-road applications – perimeter security, truck terminals, global ports
  • On-road commercial vehicles – straight trucks and semi tractor-trailers
  • On-road light vehicle L3 and 4 – individually owned vehicles
  • On-road light vehicle L5 – taxis, shuttles and on-demand AVs

We’ll leave the light vehicle L3, 4 and 5 applications to another article to concentrate here on commercial vehicle applications.

AV robotic pods – an emerging aftermarket category:

Tracxn provides information on start-ups and other investment activity in the AV robot category. They list more than 100 companies that have entered the autonomous package delivery business. Many of those companies won’t make it, but others will build a new segment of aftermarket parts and service opportunities on which we should be focused. Here are a few examples:

Starship has thousands of AV pods running on sidewalks and in dedicated lanes and is currently showing more than five million deliveries completed. 

Nuro is running an expanding range of vehicle types in Houston, L.A. and the San Francisco Bay area.

Cartken has hundreds of AV pods running on college campuses and is working with companies like Uber Eats and Grubhub to deliver food to hungry students. Magna International has signed on as the contract manufacturer of Cartken’s robots and has plans to scale production to thousands of pods per year.

Chick-Fil-A is exploring the space, working in Texas, California and Florida with Refraction AI.

The emerging robot industry is actually creating a new entity – the ghost kitchen. Imagine a centrally located robotic kitchen preparing multiple entrées for college students 24/7 and dedicated solely to food delivery. Kitchen Robotics prepares the food, which is then packed in ID-specific slots in a Cartken Robot. It’s coming – probably faster than you think.

It should be noted that both Fed Ex and Amazon have tested robotic last-mile delivery programs over the last couple of years and have decided to stop or scale back their programs. We are still watching the space carefully for AV robots to hit their inflection point in the USA.

Moving beyond low-speed pods, the next area of AV penetration might be the commercial truck market. Trucking companies suffer from a severe lack of drivers and going AV can generate significant savings. Trucking also provides better control of AV routing as they move from terminal to terminal located near interstate routes.

The first AV applications in trucking are in motion: 

Fernride in Germany is leading the way. Working with yard tractor manufacturer Terberg, they are automating the movement of trailers in container terminals, production plants and distribution centers. Terminal automation is focused on maximizing driver on-road hours. US DOT regulations say that a truck driver can not work more than 14 hours following a minimum 10-hour break off duty. During those 14 hours, the driver cannot drive more than 11 hours. Automating terminal activity allows a driver to drop a trailer (for pickup and placement by the autonomous yard tractor), pick up a new loaded trailer and continue on loaded revenue generating miles. To retain their drivers, truck fleets want to minimize non-driving time and reduce the total hours worked each day. Eliminating wait time at terminals is one way to do that.

Watch companies like OutriderGaussin and Easy Mile to prove the worthiness of autonomous terminal tractors over the next two years. I also see Maersk, the global logistics company, leading in this area.

Moving to autonomous on-road trucking applications, I see battery electric AV drayage from California’s ocean ports into container staging areas as a first application but it will come only after a real fight. California Senate Bill AB316 was passed 36-2 in September 2023, prohibiting the application of driverless trucks on California roads. California’s Senate is heavily influenced by unions and AVs eliminate union jobs.

Meanwhile, in Texas, autonomous demonstrations are fully underway. Texas’s legislature passed an AV-related bill way back in 2017 that opened the state to AV testing. 

Companies like Aurora Innovation and Kodiak are running 18-wheelers on the interstates through Dallas and things are going well. Aurora recently raised $853 million to expand testing in the state. It is running with human driver safety backups on 50 loads a week from Dallas to Houston and El Paso for pilot customers like FedEx, Schneider, Werner Enterprises, Uber Freight and Hirschbach. Pending successful completion of its tests, the company seeks full driverless operation by late 2024.

Kodiak is running AVs between IKEA distribution centers in Baytown and Frisco near Dallas. It’s a 290-mile run on Interstate 45. Watch for electric drive AVs to be applied on that route soon. In June 2023, Loadsmith ordered 800 trucks from Kodiak to run in its Loadsmith Freight Network

Gatik runs middle-mile routes in the Dallas area using box trucks to serve customers like Kroger, Sam’s Club and Pitney Bowes. Torc Robotics (Daimler) has been spending most of its development dollars in New Mexico, but is now joining the AV efforts in Texas, as well.

There is a lot of AV activity underway. To learn more, follow the StartUs Insights site that is tracking 834 AV companies operating in 10 different industries.

In a future article, I will move into the light vehicle AV segment and discuss why I see L3 and L4 automation as a real challenge to traffic safety and L5 AVs as developers of all new business services.

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