Trucks catch up in the race for autonomous vehicles


  • More investors are betting on self-driving trucks, data shows
  • Startups focusing on less complex driving environments
  • Truckmaker Robotic Research Secures New Funding Agreement

OXFORD, England, December 9 (Reuters) – We’d all be spinning around in the robotic axis if Elon Musk had been right.

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

Just a year ago, startups developing robotaxis attracted eight times more funding than companies working on trucks, buses and autonomous logistics vehicles, but the gap has narrowed significantly in 2021.

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

In the year to December 6, total investment activity in autonomous logistics vehicles quintupled to $ 6.5 billion, from $ 1.3 billion in the same period in 2020 , according to the PitchBook Starter Data Platform.

The investment activity of robotaxi companies, meanwhile, fell 22% to $ 8.4 billion from $ 10.8 billion in the same period, according to PitchBook data compiled for Reuters.

The numbers may even underestimate the trend, as some robotaxi companies such as Alphabet Inc’s Waymo (GOOGL.O) are also pumping more money into their own stand-alone trucking operations.

In the latest trucking deal, Robotic Research said on Thursday it had raised $ 228 million by bringing in outside investors for the first time to expand its truck, bus and autonomous logistics vehicle business.

The new money comes from investors such as SoftBank’s Vision Fund 2 (9984.T), Enlightenment Capital and Luminar Technologies (LAZR.O), which makes lidar sensors used in self-driving cars.

Robotic Research chief executive Alberto Lacaze told Reuters the company is deploying autonomous vehicles on a large scale where the business case works for customers “right now.”

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

OVERPROMISES

As recently as 2019, Tesla’s Musk (TSLA.O) had promised a million robotic axes “next year, for sure,” but self-driving cars that can safely navigate anywhere are still far away.

Peter Rawlinson, head of electric vehicle (EV) start-up Lucid Motors, said last month it would take a decade before fleets of robotic axles hit the roads – even with the most advanced sensors.

PitchBook’s senior mobility analyst Asad Hussain said startups such as Gatik, which makes short-haul self-driving vans, and Nuro with its mini delivery robots, could outshine Waymo and compete with Cruise over the years. next few years in large-scale marketing.

Yet, while long-haul trucks are easier to automate than robots, because major highways are simpler environments than busy urban roads, leaders of self-driving truck companies are cautious about how fast they can go. grow in power.

“We are very aware of the excessive promises made by the industry,” said Cheng Lu, general manager of autonomous truck technology company TuSimple (TSP.O), which went public in April with a market value of 8, $ 5 billion.

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

For now, TuSimple has a fleet of around 50 trucks with on-board safety drivers crisscrossing America’s hottest southern states, but it plans to have a nationwide network covering major US highways from around the world. ‘by 2024.

This will involve major investments in highway mapping, learning how to deal with more difficult weather and road conditions further north and in new autonomous trucks being developed by Navistar, which is part of Volkswagen’s Traton (8TRA.DE).

‘A LONG TRIP’

But rolling out a true nationwide grid could take years, as autonomous trucks still face a major challenge – human drivers.

An autonomous vehicle will always brake if it encounters a “human man loaded with testosterone,” said Ralf Klaedtke, chief technology officer at TE Connectivity (TEL.N), which makes sensors and electronic systems to handle masses of data. autonomous driving. for the automotive industry.

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

Paul Newman, founder of UK autonomous vehicle software startup Oxbotica, said robotaxis remains his “North Star,” his clear long-term goal.

But for now, it is focusing on simpler applications, some of which use a fully electric autonomous vehicle designed for this purpose by Australian startup Applied EV.

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

Oxbotica is working on vehicles for mining in partnership with Wenco, which is part of Hitachi Construction Machinery (6305.T), and on many different options with energy company BP (BP.L), such as vehicles for remote wind and solar parks.

Morag Watson, BP’s senior vice president for digital science and engineering, said Oxbotica’s technology could monitor large sites or transport equipment to humans undertaking repairs. She said they will be testing many different options in 2022.

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

Oxbotica also works with UK food delivery and online technology company Ocado (OCDO.L) which automates supply chain systems for US distribution chain Kroger (KR.N). BP and Ocado have both invested in Oxbotica.

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

NO LEFT TURNING!

U.S. autonomous electric vehicle maker Outrider has targeted distribution yards – picking up trailers after truckers drop them off and lining up new ones to haul – including at a Chicago yard for the Georgia-Pacific paper company.

Outrider has developed a robotic arm for the truck to connect and disconnect trailers. It has raised $ 118 million so far and chief executive Andrew Smith has said it will grow to thousands of vehicles over the next five years.

The startup wants to start making short hops between job sites, but operating on public roads adds complexity, Smith said.

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

Getting out on the public highway requires traveling with caution, in part because of regulations, but also because of the legal pitfalls of a contentious market like that of the United States.

Ian White, chief executive of digital insurer Koffie Labs, said a crash of a “billion dollar black swan” could wipe out any business that goes too fast and gets it wrong.

“You would put your record on the line,” he said.

This is why Gatik has taken a cautious approach to its “mid-point” delivery routes between distribution centers and retailers, said managing director Gautam Narang.

Gatik’s trucks take short, predictable routes avoiding left turns through oncoming traffic, schools, hospitals, fire stations, blind turns – or whatever is complicated.

“We are not working on all the sticky situations that the autonomous vehicle industry is trying to solve,” he said. “We are taking small steps using routes that are problem free from a complexity perspective. “

Gatik works with Walmart Inc (WMT.N) and Loblaw Companies Ltd (L.TO) using self-driving trucks with safety drivers, although he operates some unmanned routes in Arkansas and views the global driver shortage as an opportunity.

“We decided to focus on a simpler use case where the need was very acute,” Narang said. “We are not building technology for technology.”

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Reporting by Nick Carey in Oxford and Paul Lienert in Detroit; Editing by David Clarke

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.


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