Dozens of companies, from truckmakers like Daimler and Navistar to startups like Change and Embark-plus Uber’s Otto and Waymo, the erstwhile Google self-driving project-are pursuing what they believe is the next generation of trucking. Its business opportunity-and trucking is the physical embodiment of a thriving economy. Trucks moved more than 70% of all U.S. freight and generated $676 billion in revenue in 2016, according to the American Trucking Associations.
Some 33.8 million trucks were registered for business purposes in 2016. Almost 4 million of them were categorized Class 8, denoting the largest freight trucks. Without the trucking industry, the economy would screech to a standstill. The newest trucks on the road, such as those made by Volvo and Freightliner, employ driver assistance technologies similar to the adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping features found in modern passenger cars. The technologies make driving a truck less stressful, safer, and more fuel efficient.
Starsky Robotics CEO and co-founder Stefan Seltz-Axmacher believe trucking is on the verge of a radical change that hasn’t been seen since the industry was deregulated in 1980. “Autonomous trucks are going to be an even bigger change than that.” Seltz-Axmacher’s company, which is based in San Francisco, uses software, radar, and computer vision cameras to enable long-haul trucks to drive by themselves on the highway, then cede control to a remote operator to travel from exit to final destination.
In September, a Starsky Robotics truck drove 68 miles on a Florida highway with zero intervention by a human. Meanwhile, Nikola Motor is designing and building its own driverless, hydrogen fuel cell-powered Class 8 truck-“The iPhone of trucking,” says CEO Trevor Milton. So where does that leave a company like Daimler, whose first truck arrived at the market in 1896? In the embrace of the long view.
Daimler, which sells more than 400,000 trucks globally each year, is treading carefully as it brings technology to its commercial vehicles. Its $180,000 Semi promises up to 500 miles on single charge-four time the range of an electric truck that Daimler is developing.
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