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CES® is referred to as “the most influential tech event in the world — the proving ground for breakthrough technologies and global innovators.”

At CES 2023, applications related to autonomous trucking were on full display—demonstrating the growing potential they represent to make a big impact in the supply chain.

“Developers such as Waabi, Waymo, Aurora, Gatik, Plus and Kodiak Robotics showcased their automated driving systems, met with attendees and participated in panel discussions at the massive annual technology expo, held Jan. 5-8,” wrote Seth Clevenger in a recent post for Transport Topics.

“The extensive presence of self-driving truck exhibits at CES illustrated how autonomous vehicle technology — once focused predominantly on passenger cars and ride-hailing services — has increasingly shifted toward commercial and industrial applications in recent years,” Clevenger said.

Citing the demonstrations by various companies listed in the post, he noted that the self-driving truck developers who attended the show “emphasized their progress toward commercialization.”

We covered autonomous trucking in a post last year and thought it’d be interesting to see what various experts are saying about current dynamics and future trends.

The Troubles of 2022

The dicey financial picture of 2022 impacted consumers and businesses across the globe—and autonomous trucking players were no exception.

TuSimple—which we highlighted as an industry leader in our previous post—dealt with a bevy of woes over the past year, as FreightWaves writer Alan Adler noted recently in an article entitled, “Missteps and milestones mark 2022 in autonomous trucking.”

“TuSimple’s near implosion tops a year when easy money disappeared,” the sub-heading said.

Adler provided a list of troubles the company faced over the past year—including the end of its partnership of more than two years with truck manufacturer Navistar in early December and the laying off of 25 percent of its workforce four days before Christmas.

The brief joint announcement about the split didn’t include any specific details, but noted that the decision “does not preclude the companies from working together in the future.”

In a separate post, Adler explored the nuances involved and potential impact on TuSimple’s ability to keep up with the competition.

“Even though it was the first autonomous trucking company to remove the driver in pilot runs last December, competitors Aurora Technology, Waymo Via and Torc Robotics have OEM development partnerships that TuSimple now lacks,” he wrote.

The December 21 announcement outlined the company’s restructuring plans and captured the numerous changes that have been made at the top—including the return of Cheng Lu, TuSimple President and CEO.

“I returned to TuSimple as CEO to help address a number of challenges and set the Company up for long-term success,” Lu said in the announcement. “This required evaluating our entire workforce and making tough decisions. It’s no secret that the current economic environment is difficult. We must be prudent with our capital and operate as efficiently as possible. While I deeply regret the impact this has on those affected, I believe it is a necessary step as TuSimple continues down our path to commercialization. This is part of our overall strategy to prioritize investments that bring the most value to shareholders, and position TuSimple as a customer-focused, product-driven organization.”

Although TuSimple’s troubles were some of the most visible, other autonomous trucking companies had difficulties, too—as Adler noted.

“The other major players seeking to commercialize heavy-duty autonomous trucking struggled financially as markets plummeted and the easy-money sponsorship of special purpose acquisition companies that brought them public ran out,” he wrote, citing some of the financial pains experienced by Embark Trucks and Aurora Innovation.

Adler also noted that privately-held companies such as Kodiak Robotics, Waymo Via, Plus, Locomation, and Torc Robotics don’t share their financials.

Onward and Upward

But Adler pointed out some bright spots, too, noting the real-world-driving hurdles some overcame during the past year—such as test driving in snowy conditions, managing the blowout of a tire, and cooperating with a safety inspection.

He also included the progress made by companies that include Kodiak, Aurora, and Embark—as well as “autonomous partnerships” of various types that they and others have made “across the trucking ecosystem.”

Noting that “a key differentiator among autonomous trucking startups is partnerships with truck manufacturers,” he cited Sterling Anderson, Aurora co-founder and chief product officer.

“I’m not sure how well understood this point is in the industry, but you simply cannot operate at large scale without a set of partners who know how to build those trucks,” Anderson told FreightWaves. “This is why early on we made the investments we did and have the partnerships we’ve got with Paccar and with Volvo.”

In its 2023 predictions for autonomous trucks, research and consulting firm IDTechEx cited TuSimple’s groundbreaking achievement in December of 2021 and offered this prediction: “Commercial ‘driver-out’ autonomous trucking will enter a trialing phase: IDTechEx thinks that in 2023 the first commercial autonomous truck routes without a driver behind the wheel will go online. This will likely start with a single route, perhaps Tucson to Phoenix, as demonstrated by TuSimple. However, IDTechEx thinks a handful of routes and companies will be online by the end of next year.”

Route Selection Will Be Key

For companies to be successful in their autonomous trucking pursuits, experts from Boston Consulting Group (BCG) say route selection will be important.

In “Mapping the Future of Autonomous Trucking,” they say that within the realm of autonomous vehicles, long-haul trucks “offer one of the most appealing use cases for full self-driving vehicles.”

A “critical factor” in this context is “the ability of AV providers and fleet operators to identify the most appropriate routes on which to trial and ultimately operate their autonomous commercial vehicles,” according to the experts.

In a collaboration with Kodiak conducted in early 2022, the two worked together to identify routes between major metropolitan areas (MA) in the U.S. that would be the most promising.

“BCG’s data analytics group BCG GAMMA developed an interactive dashboard that applies a prioritization algorithm to define optimal routes according to filters chosen by the user,” the experts explained.

Through their work together, BCG GAMMA and Kodiak eventually came up with five primary criteria to evaluate these routes:

  • Distance—which was grouped into four categories of 200 to 350 miles, 350 to 600 miles, 600 to 1,200 miles, and 1,200 + miles.

  • AV Legislation—to help filter potential routes as “driverless ready” or “testing ready and above” according to state-level AV legislation.

  • Weather—to identify routes located in the “Sun Belt” to limit weather challenges.

  • Freight Density—which “leveraged the 2017 Commodity Flow Survey (CFS) for data on the round-trip freight volume transported by trucks between MA pairs.”

  • Density of Truck Stops and Warehouses—which is needed to inform long-term planning for a route network, “because even when completely autonomous trucks are deployed on highways, they will initially still need to stop at waypoints near highways so that drivers can complete the last few miles of the off-highway route to their destinations.”

To learn more, please check out the full post, where BCG invites companies to “Take Our Route Finder Dashboard for a Spin.”

Autonomous Trucking at Industrial Sites

But there’s one sector that can benefit from autonomous trucking for which route planning may be a little more simple: industrial sites.

In a recent Frost & Sullivan post, Sathyanarayana Kabirdas, the Vice President and Global Practice Area Leader for Mobility at Frost & Sullivan described a new collaboration between UD Trucks and Sensible 4 to tap into the possibilities.

A Sensible 4 press release, provided additional details: “Finnish automated driving technology company Sensible 4 and Japanese commercial vehicle solutions provider UD Trucks partner to automate a heavy-duty truck, enabling the autonomous transportation, and dumping, of material, at a live industrial site in Japan. The project marks the beginning of a partnership between UD Trucks and Sensible 4.”

“Following the release of its automated driving software platform DAWN™ earlier this year, Sensible 4 recently announced that it is rolling out its product to the industrial segment,” the announcement said. “Sensible 4 and UD Trucks have collaborated to automate a heavy-duty vehicle at a closed industrial site in Japan. The two companies have successfully retrofitted UD Trucks’ flagship heavy-duty Quon to enable it to operate autonomously to transport, and dump, material at one of UD’s customer sites.”

The following Sensible 4 video captures the demonstration.

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