650 miles without a driver through the southern United States – not an utopia, but rather a reality. The field test for self-driving trucks with the longest distance by far is under way. From the outside, everything seems normal when a truck transports Frigidaire refrigerators from the factory in El Paso, Texas, to the delivery center in Palm Springs, California. A bright blue tractor with a typical semi-trailer. What is not recognizable to other drivers on the I-10: The driver’s hands are not on the wheel. Because he’s only monitoring the actual driver of the team: The computer.
Startup believes in automation
The fully autonomous tractor was built by Embark, a startup from the famous Silicon Valley. Founder and CEO Alex Rodrigues describes the beginnings: "We just bought a truck and drove it into our garage. 15 months later we are on the road with it.” After installing cameras and computers and doing countless tests, Embark Partner was looking for a large-scale field test. In the end, a cooperation with the Electrolux-owned brand Frigidaire and Ryder, which operates throughout North America, came to fruition. Their tractors bring the trailer from the Frigidaire factory in El Paso right up to the I-10 on-ramp.
Just in case
"Driving safety is our top priority. That's why even during the field test there will still be people in the cockpit who can intervene in dangerous situations or in case of ambiguity," says Alex Rodrigues. The trailer is switched just off the highway and the Embark tractor takes over. Now it's 650 miles across the I-10 through southern Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, all the way to California, passing through Las Cruces, Tucson, and Phoenix. Above all, the busy roads around the latter metropolis that millions call home are a challenge. The journey ends in Palm Springs, where the person at the wheel is once again needed for the last few miles.
The goal is far-reaching automation
During the test, which is initially scheduled for one year, a human is irreplaceable, but the vision behind it is clear: Fully automated operation on major highways. In Alex Rodrigues’s imagination, the drivers are then only responsible for the distance between the highway and the destination – similar to the port pilot on large container ships. But until that happens, a lot of miles have to be driven and not to mention the bureaucratic hurdles that will have to be overcome – over six months of negotiations with four state governments and federal agencies was needed before Embark could launch its truck.
With the aid of modern computer technology vehicles are able to drive without human intervention. The computer can use the various assistance systems for active control. Because of lacking legal provisions, however, all trials have to be approved by the relevant authorities. A number of field tests are currently under way for autonomous trucks, ranging from platooning to short distance tests by Daimler in Germany, all the way to trials such as these by Embark or Starsky Robotics in Florida.