This self-driving truck startup wants drivers to keep their jobs

A new self-driving truck startup, Embark, has revealed its first autonomous vehicle, and is set to begin testing in Nevada. The company has eschewed the typical self-driving fare of passenger vehicles, despite many rivals focusing their development attention there, and instead predicts that long-distance haulage will be the place AI drivers make the biggest splash. Most importantly, perhaps, it's not threatening to make all truck drivers redundant as a result.

Embark's system is a highway autopilot. Rather than attempting to take an autonomous truck on an entire journey from A to B, the technology instead focuses on the bulk of the trip: the time spent on interstates. Not only will that potentially reap the most rewards in terms of proportion of time active, it also makes the startup's challenge a whole lot easier.

"The long haul stretches of open interstate between cities tend to be the most predictable, with less potential for unexpected obstacles like cyclists and pedestrians," Embark points out. It's for that reason that automakers have generally rolled out their own semi-autonomous driver assistance systems for highway use first. The technical overhead involved is considerably less when you don't have to consider oncoming traffic or people trying to cross the road.

However, it's also a type of road where truckers face a higher-than-average chance of accident, given how much time they spend there. "It's also where professional drivers are most vulnerable to distraction and drowsiness," Embark argues. In contrast, "an existing truck, equipped with the right sensors and the right software, can safely navigate this stretch without succumbing to boredom or tiredness."

While experts have warned that autonomous haulage could significantly impact employment, particularly among those in states where levels of joblessness are already high, Embark insists that there'll still be role for human drivers. They'll be responsible for piloting the truck through urban areas, for instance, not to mention taking over if the system is confused by unexpected construction or such. " A human driver will still touch every load," the company says, "but with Embark they're able to move more loads per day, handing off hundreds of miles of freeway driving to their robot partners."

Like other self-driving vehicles we've seen, Embark uses a combination of radar, camera, and depth sensors, including LIDAR, to map the world around its trucks. That leaves them capable of handling night driving, fog, and other adverse conditions. It's unclear how much the Embark system overall could add to the cost of a truck, though it's likely to be a smaller percentage of total value compared to a passenger car, since trucks themselves are more expensive out of the gate.

Embark has already found itself several million dollars of investment from Maven Ventures – which previously backed Cruise Automation, the self-driving company which GM acquired in 2016 for $1bn – and a team made up of former Audi, SpaceX, and other experts. Nevada has already granted it permission to perform testing on public roads, though Embark isn't saying when it expects its vehicles to commercially launch.

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