When the rubber meets the road, which driverless vehicle will take the lead?
In the last few months alone, Uber has deepened its dealings with Toyota, taking on $500 million more in investment to expand its self-driving tech to minivans. Waymo has partnered with Walmart to help riders get their groceries faster and more efficiently. And Tesla has said its new self-driving chip, promising to process video data 10x faster than its predecessor, is finally ready.
But when it comes time to crown a winner in this autonomous-driving road race, the champion likely won't be one that picks up passengers. It'll be a hard-working vehicle tackling jobs like moving freight from coast to coast.
“Four years ago, I said there was no way I was going to see autonomous vehicles in my lifetime,” said Dennis Mooney, SVP at truckmaker Navistar International, in an interview. “It is going to happen in commercial vehicles first. We could see autonomous vehicles on the road commercially within three years.”
Large vehicles have been aching for advancement
U.S. trucks carry more than 10 billion tons of freight each year, according to the American Trucking Association, and 43% of the expenses they incur track back to drivers. It's also an industry currently understaffed by about 50,000. Consider that analysts don't expect the broad adoption of self-driving cars to hit until the 2030s (or for them to become "common" among passengers until the 2050s) and it's easy to see why freight vehicles could win the race.
TuSimple, an autonomous-tech startup, has been touting a breakthrough in the vision of its semi trucks this year — they're now able to "see" up to 1,000 meters ahead on the highway. No other autonomous system is known to have such long-sighted vision, and TuSimple is getting rewarded greatly for the algorithms that enable it. The company has raised more than $80 million from investors including Nvidia. Competitors like Waymo are testing autonomous semis, but so far don't seem to have the depth of vision TuSimple's team says it's unlocked.
Embark is a 2-year-old self-driving truck company whose founders think they can get to market first. After raising $30 million from Sequoia in July, bringing capital raised to nearly $50 million, its founders are focused on expanding their fleet of trucks from five to 100. Their trucks completed a coast-to-coast drive earlier this year.
Kodiak Robotics has its sights set on long-haul trucking. Led, in part, by ex-Uber, ex-Google Self-Driving Car Don Burnette, the company has raised $40 million to test AI-enabled trucks and hire engineers.
And potential contenders keep popping up, like Kache.ai, which has kept a low profile so far this year. The company has connections to ex-Google engineer Anthony Levandowski, who was previously in the middle of the Uber v. Waymo lawsuit. Check out 30+ startups working on autonomous tech.