Trucks catch up in the self-driving vehicle race

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OXFORD, England — If Elon Musk was right, we’d all be whizzing around in robotic axes right now.

Instead, fully self-driving cars are struggling to get away from the starting grid, and some investors are betting that driverless trucks will be the first to reach the checkered flag.

Just a year ago, startups developing robotic axes made eight times more money than companies working on autonomous trucks, buses and logistics vehicles, but the gap has narrowed dramatically by 2021.

With fewer regulatory and technological hurdles, trucks driving on major highways, fixed delivery routes, or in environments far from cyclists and pedestrians such as mines and ports are now seen as a faster way to generate returns.

In the year to December 6, total investment activity for self-driving logistics vehicles has increased fivefold to $6.5 billion, from $1.3 billion in the same period in 2020, according to startup data platform PitchBook.

Investment activity for roboticaxi companies fell 22% over the same period to $8.4 billion, from $10.8 billion, PitchBook data collected for Reuters shows.

In fact, the numbers may underestimate the trend, as some robot axi companies, such as Alphabet Inc’s Waymo, are also pumping more money into their own autonomous truck operations.

In its latest truck deal, Robotic Research said Thursday it has raised $228 million by attracting outside investors for the first time to expand its autonomous trucks, buses and logistics vehicles.

The new money will come from investors including SoftBank’s Vision Fund 2, Enlightenment Capital and Luminar Technologies, which makes lidar sensors used in self-driving cars.

Alberto Lacaze, Chief Executive of Robotic Research, told Reuters that the company is deploying autonomous vehicles at scale where the business case for customers works “now”.

“They don’t have to wait until 2025, unlike robotaxis where you have to drop the cost of all sensors by an order of magnitude,” he said.

OVERPROMISES

As late as 2019, Tesla’s Musk had “certainly” promised a million robotic axes by next year, but self-driving cars that can safely navigate anywhere are still a long way off.

Peter Rawlinson, head of electric vehicle (EV) startup Lucid Motors, said last month that it would take a decade for fleets of robotic axes to hit the road — even with the most advanced sensors.

Asad Hussain, chief mobility analyst at PitchBook, said startups like Gatik, which makes autonomous short-haul vans, and Nuro with its mini-delivery robots, could overshadow Waymo and rival Cruise in years to come by commercializing on a large scale.

While long-haul trucks are easier to automate than robotaxis because major highways are simpler environments than busy city roads, managers of self-driving truck companies are wary of how fast they can ramp up.

“We are well aware of the exaggerated promises the industry has made,” said Cheng Lu, CEO of TuSimple, a self-driving truck technology company, which went public in April with a market cap of $8.5 billion.

“The industry now understands the complexity of the problem and that it will take more time to resolve it,” he said.

For now, TuSimple has a fleet of about 50 trucks with security drivers on board that traverse America’s warmer southern states, but it plans to have a national network covering major U.S. highways by 2024.

That requires major investments in highway mapping, dealing with more difficult weather and road conditions further north and in new self-driving trucks being developed by Navistar, part of Volkswagen’s Traton.

‘A LONG TRIP’

But rolling out a true national network could take years, as self-driving trucks still face a major challenge: human drivers.

An autonomous vehicle will always hit the brakes when it encounters a “testosterone-laden human male,” said Ralf Klaedtke, chief technology officer at TE Connectivity, which makes sensors and electronic systems to process masses of self-driving data for the automotive industry. .

“The autonomous vehicle will always be the slowest in mixed traffic,” he said.

Paul Newman, founder of the British autonomous vehicle software startup Oxbotica, says that robotaxis has remained its “North Star”, its clear long-term goal.

But for now, he’s focusing on simpler applications, some of which use a purpose-built, all-electric, self-driving vehicle from Australian startup Applied EV.

“This is a long journey,” he says as he shows test vehicles at the company’s Oxford headquarters in England. “It’s one of the most difficult technical problems to solve.”

Oxbotica is working on vehicles for mines in partnership with Wenco, part of Hitachi Construction Machinery, and on many different options with energy company BP, such as vehicles for remote wind and solar farms.

Morag Watson, BP’s senior vice president for digital science and engineering, said Oxbotica’s technology can monitor large sites or transport equipment to people doing repairs. She said they would test many different options in 2022.

“We’ve barely scratched the surface of what we can do with industrial autonomy,” Watson said.

Oxbotica is also working with UK online food delivery and technology company Ocado, which automates supply chain systems for the US retailer Kroger, among others. BP and Ocado have both invested in Oxbotica.

Alex Harvey, Ocado’s head of advanced technology, said Oxbotica’s technology can be used “in the warehouse, in the yard, on the road or from the curb to the kitchen”.

NO LEFT TURN!

U.S. autonomous EV maker Outrider has targeted distribution yards — picking up trailers after truck drivers drop them off and putting new ones ready for haulage — including at a Chicago yard for paper company Georgia-Pacific.

Outrider has developed a robot arm with which the truck can couple and uncouple trailers. It has raised $118 million so far and Chief Executive Andrew Smith says it will scale to thousands of vehicles over the next five years.

The startup wants to start doing short distances between yards, but working on public roads adds complexity, Smith said.

“We saw through the early hype of the technology and recognized distribution yards were the perfect short term solution with their repetitive, low speed operations in tight environments,” he said.

Going out on public roads calls for caution, partly because of regulations, but also because of legal pitfalls in a contested market like the United States.

Ian White, chief executive of digital insurer Koffie Labs, said a “billion dollar black swan” crash could destroy any company that moves too fast and is wrong.

“You’d be risking your balance,” he said.

Therefore, Gatik has taken a careful approach to its “middle-mile” delivery routes between distribution centers and retailers, said Chief Executive Gautam Narang.

Gatik’s trucks drive on short, predictable routes, avoiding left turns against oncoming traffic, schools, hospitals, fire stations, blind turns – or anything more complicated.

“We’re not working on every tricky situation that the autonomous vehicle industry is trying to solve,” he said. “We’re taking small steps with routes that are hassle-free from a complexity standpoint.”

Gatik has partnered with Walmart Inc and Loblaw Companies Ltd using autonomous trucks with safety drivers, although it operates some self-driving routes in Arkansas and sees the global driver shortage as an opportunity.

“We decided to focus on a simpler use case where the need was very acute,” said Narang. “We don’t build the technology for the sake of technology.”