In the U.S. and other countries, aging populations and growing logistics demand have resulted in shortages of truck drivers. Autonomous trucks could help relieve those shortages. Einride AB today announced that it plans to hire what it called “the first autonomous and remote truck operator in the freight mobility space.” The Stockholm-based company said it will hire drivers in Sweden next month, followed by the U.S. in the third quarter. The remote operators would begin commercial services in Sweden in Q3 2020 and in the U.S. in Q4 2020.
In 2019, the U.S. had a shortfall of nearly 60,000 truck drivers, according to the American Trucking Associations. An aging workforce, a lack of female and millennial drivers, and concerns about emissions have increased interest in autonomous and electric vehicles, said Einride.
Remote operators promise savings
Einride designs, develops, and sells electric and autonomous “pods,” and its Einride shipper platform is a cloud-based transport-execution system for logistics. The company is working toward SAE Level 4 self-driving vehicles. In addition, Einride said the use of remote operators would provide the following benefits:
- Reduce fuel/energy costs by 70%, from 60 cents to 18 cents (U.S.)
- Lower transport costs by 30%, bringing the ratio to one human driver per 10 vehicles
- Cut operating costs by 60% and increase productivity by 200%
- Reduce CO2 emissions by 90%
Hiring, training process
Einride said it will hire a former truck driver as the first dedicated autonomous truck operator. The remote operator will go through an extensive safety and technology training program and provide feedback to help develop Einride’s remote driver station. The company also plans for a nine-month trial period and to recruit additional truck drivers to be remote operators.
“Today, our autonomous pods are operated by developers — robot engineers trained to drive trucks. A commercially scalable solution must rely on truck drivers, trained to remote-operate robots,” stated Robert Falck, founder and CEO of Einride. “We are excited to open up an entirely new category of jobs that will not only benefit the industries currently employees with improved hours, working conditions, and knowledge, but [also] reinvigorate a dying employment sector for the next wave job seekers.”
Falck responded to the following questions from The Robot Report:
Falck: The Einride pod is equipped with lidars, radar, and cameras. We develop parts of the AI ourselves — such as basic safety systems — and have partners for others, like object recognition.
Can you describe the remote-control interface?
Falck: The remote station is a dome-like structure offering a view similar to that of a driver’s cab, but with better side and backward visibility, and the option to switch between different views. But exactly how this working environment will look in the future is something we’re still researching, and we are now involving truck drivers into that process.
During the testing period, will there be a safety driver inside the truck in addition to the remote operator? Once the vehicles are more autonomous, will there still be an option for remote or manual override?
Falck: The Einride pod doesn’t have a driver’s cab, so no. We start out with high levels of autonomy, and expand the operational design domain as things progress, rather than the other way around. For the foreseeable future, the vehicles will be supervised remotely, with an option for manual override. We believe in a human-to-truck ratio of approximately 1:10.
Among the challenges for semi-autonomous driving is the handoff between a human driver and the vehicle. How will Einride manage that with the remote driver?
Falck: The challenge is different, as Level 4 autonomous vehicles have fewer disengagements. Although it is possible to remote-control our pods, a typical disengagement doesn’t require the operator to take over — i.e., to drive — only to give instructions.
When does Einride envision fleets of fully autonomous pods being on the roads?
Falck: By 2022 to 2023, we believe we’ll have autonomous fleets operating in Europe and the U.S.
Are the biggest remaining technical challenges training the vehicles, scaling up to meet demand, or something else?
Falck: Scaling is our biggest concern — we are currently laying the groundwork for industrialization. But there are legal challenges, too, and some technical challenges, mainly related to the lidars.
How are autonomous vehicle regulations in Sweden similar to or different from those in the rest of Europe, or say, in the U.S.?
Falck: Well, there are vehicle regulations, and there are traffic regulations. As for traffic regulations related to autonomous vehicles, the U.S. is a patchwork, much like Europe, as the legal situation varies from state to state. Vehicle requirements, on the other hand, are regulated by federal authorities, so you have to deal with two levels. Sweden has a more streamlined process.
On the other hand, we don’t have the progressive self-driving legislation of some U.S. states. Effectively, removing the driver is easier in the U.S.; removing the driver’s cab is easier in Sweden. On the whole, the U.S. is moving faster.
Are you already serving logistics customers?
Falck: Small scale, yes. We have a commercial pilot for DB Schenker in Sweden, with a pod serving a continuous flow between two hubs in an industrial area.
You raised Series A funding last year — are you planning on another round soon?
Falck: Yes, we will open up for new investments this year.