The road towards vehicle automation is wide open, with companies going full throttle to be among the first to put this exciting technology to everyday use. Self-driving cars are on the drawing boards today. Ridesharing app Uber even wants to start utilizing driverless automobiles in select markets across the country. So is it any surprise that someone also wants to automate the rugged 18-wheelers transporting the nation’s freight from coast to coast?
A young California entrepreneur is currently working to launch a system that uses self-driving trucks along the major U.S. highways. This new system tailgates a story last year that followed a convoy of driverless trucks that successfully navigated across Europe, arriving safely in Rotterdam. If Alex Rodrigues has his way, that driverless convoy feat could soon be replicated in America thanks to a system he’s developing.
Rodrigues’ idea, which he’s dubbed Embark, works somewhat like a harbor pilot in seaports. Automated trucks would cruise the highways, hauling valuable freight. When it comes time to enter a town, a human driver would take over and guide the rig to its destination, same as a harbor pilot. When it comes time for the truck to go to its next destination, the human driver would guide the vehicle to the highway, where the driverless system would take command until the next time it needs to exit and deliver.
Trucking companies are eagerly watching Rodrigues’ progress and that of other driverless vehicle systems now in development. These automated systems, they believe, could be a great boost to highway safety as well as offer a way to overcome the growing driver shortage plaguing the industry.
With demand for over-the-road transportation growing, trucking companies are having a difficult time recruiting and retaining new drivers, who are often put off by the long hours and time away from families. This shortage is expected to only get worse as drivers age and retire. Rodrigues claims his Embark system can help trucking companies overcome the time away from family disadvantage and help human drivers focus on shorter routes that keep close to home and loved ones.
Highway safety is another important factor that could work in Rodrigues’ factor. Driverless vehicles do not get tired or sleepy during a long haul, nor do they get distracted by other outside factors. Their sole focus is on the road ahead, with no emotional or physical considerations to interfere with performance of their duties.
Rodrigues and Embark are backed by some heavy-hitting financiers. With their money, he expects to quadruple his engineering staff, adding to his already impressive staff of experts hired away from numerous industrial automation pioneers.
Will robots take over long-haul runs from human drivers? This trip has only just begun. The answer lies further down the road.