Mike Reid, the Chief Operating Officer at Embark Trucks, said that “Anyone employed as a driver today will be able to retire as a driver.” What makes that statement surprising is that Embark is a leading developer of autonomous trucks. One might think that the goal of an autonomous truck company is to render drivers superfluous. The American Trucking Association estimates that there are approximately 3.5 million professional truck drivers in the United States. Mr. Reid made the statement eft’s 3PL and Supply Chain Summit on June 7th.
Crunchbase reports that San Francisco headquartered Embark has received $17.2 million in venture funding. Embark does not build trucks, it builds the AI-based software that will eventually allow trucks to drive autonomously. What does eventually mean? “The technology will come to market in the next five years” according to Mr. Reid.
The Embark model involves truckers driving to a marshalling yard near an Interstate highway. Then the trucks will drive the long-haul portion of the trip autonomously. At the end of the long haul, the truck pulls off the Interstate at another marshalling yard, a driver gets in, and the truck is driven the final miles to its destination.
Artificial Intelligence is used to train the software how to safely navigate on the Interstate. Embark has professional drivers sitting at the wheel actively monitoring the road, supervising the system, and ready to take control whenever they think the truck is responding too slowly to an impending situation. Embark will run millions of miles “training” in this manner to develop their technology.
The truck uses several sensors whose data is “meshed.” The different sensors are better in different kinds of driving conditions. Some sensors, for example, work better during the day, others at night. “Cyber security is a never-ending challenge,” Mr. Reid said. “But don’t forget cars (with drivers) can be hacked. We are taking a layered approach to cyber security, with firewalls between sub systems with an isolated layer responsible for safety critical controls at the core.”
A young driver with a job today, that wants to remain a driver throughout his career, will be able to keep his job for several reasons.
- The Embark model will continue to require local drivers. “Training” trucks to operate safely in urban areas is an exceedingly difficult AI problem.
- The rollout will be gradual, taking approximately 30 years. Embark is training their trucks on a few Interstates in the Southwest US where driving conditions are very favorable. But as more Interstates are added, more professional drivers will be needed for continuing training of the system. And as the rollout continues from the Southwest to other parts of the nation, where more complex conditions are present that can include snow and black ice, the training becomes more difficult.
- The driver shortage is not going away. The demographics show that there are a high proportion of drivers close to retirement age. 2014 research from the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI) showed that the average age of truckers was 52 and trucking companies report fewer and fewer young people working to become certified drivers. If anything, autonomous trucks can help draw more young workers into the field because there won’t be a need for as many long-haul drivers. Long-haul trucking is an arduous job, and a job that is not family friendly.
- Finally, Mr. Reid said that “trends” show that freight will grow by about 30 percent over the decade. The ATRI research projected the need for hiring 100,000 new drivers per year to deal with the combination of retiring drivers and growth in freight.
In short, according to Mr. Reid the “narrative” that robots are about to eliminate large numbers of workers is not true, at least not in the trucking industry.