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Truck Tech: Autonomous dashboard edition

This week, an autonomous truck dashboard from KeyBanc; Embark Trucks’ co-founder gives his 2022 salary to future robot builders; Aurora’s case for symbiosis of car and truck autonomy; ZF’s really big brake job; and Great Dane’s sales boss says trailer repair shops are filling up as new equipment remains hard to get.

Autonomous dashboard

KeyBanc Capital Markets out of Cleveland published its first Autonomous Truck Technology Dashboard this week. It tracks public filings on the number of trucks, safety drivers and reportable incidents as filed with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

The report covers TuSimple Holdings, Embark Trucks, Aurora Innovation, Waymo LLC, and Pony AI, which does not offer heavy-duty trucks.

Far from a guide on what companies are leading the race to commercialization, the stats provide some insights, but the numbers trail what some of the companies say and even some of the federal filings.

Equipment: As of March 1, KeyBanc counted 117 autonomy-equipped trucks across its sample, which does not include privately held Kodiak Robotics, Plus or the Torc Robotics subsidiary of Daimler Truck. That would add about 30-35 more trucks.

TuSimple led with 50 trucks registered with FMCSA, though its number is closer to 75 with recent deliveries. TuSimple has another 25 trucks in China. Waymo was second with 47 trucks, a number that is probably stable though it is receiving Freightliner Cascadias for fifth-generation Waymo Driver integration at a facility in Detroit. 

The dashboard showed Aurora with two registered trucks, but the FMCSA’s SAFER website showed 13. Embark was listed with 16 trucks. It reported 18 during fourth-quarter earnings on Thursday.

Drivers: Ultimately, the goal is practically zero human drivers. But today, safety supervision is the responsibility of veteran truckers the startups have hired. KeyBanc’s sample pegged the number at 160, with Waymo accounting for half of the total and TuSimple at 59. But the number is higher because Embark and Aurora appear undercounted, and, again, Kodiak, Plus and Torc are not included.

Miles: KeyBanc puts the number at 4.1 million miles. The reality is much higher. Embark is listed at 315,000 miles for 2020. On Thursday, the company said it totaled 1 million miles through 2021. TuSimple clocks in at 2.15 million miles through 2020. Its total was 6.3 million at the end of 2021. Waymo reported 1.62 million trucking miles through 2021.

Inspections: KeyBanc reports no unsafe driver violations resulting from 40 roadside inspections in February. 

Takeaway: Just because autonomous trucks are in the early stages of testing doesn’t mean they lack meaningful metrics. The more current, the better.

Flowering STEM

Alex Rodrigues reflects fondly on his experience in FIRST Lego League and FIRST Robotics as a youngster. Now he is showing how much it meant to him. 

The co-founder of autonomous truck software developer Embark Trucks is donating his entire 2022 salary and any bonus he earns to launch Little Robots, a grant fund dedicated to youth robotics and science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education. 

How much money that means is unclear because his salary has not been set yet. Rodrigues earned $180,000 in salary in 2021. His 2022 stock compensation — Rodrigues is Embark’s largest shareholder — is tied to company shares reaching $20 or more this year. Embark (NASDAQ: EMBK) shares opened trading Friday at $4.78.

The Little Robots fund made its first donation to the Afghan Girls Robotics Team, hosted by the Digital Citizen Fund. The Afghan Dreamers have won numerous robotics awards and put their skills to work at home developing a low-cost ventilator from used car parts to help the country cope with a COVID outbreak following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021.

Watch now: This week’s Truck Tech on FreightWaves Now

“My early start in competitive robotics played a pivotal role in founding Embark,” Rodrigues said in a press release. “With supportive mentors as a child, I was able to build my first robots and organize my own robotics team. Now my mission is to pay that forward.”

The Little Robots fund will accept individual and group applications for eligible projects on a rolling basis.

Autonomous symbiosis

The two autonomous trucking companies that also make driverless cars — Aurora Innovation and Waymo — are convinced that lessons learned from one transfer to the other. Common hardware, software, infrastructure and development tools accelerate the deployment timeline. 

One example is the similarity of view in Aurora Driver-equipped vehicles, a Toyota Sienna minivan and a Peterbilt Model 579 Class 8 truck.

Aurora Innovation claims a massive overlapping field of view based on cameras, lidars and radars on the Aurora Driver system used in retrofitted Toyota Sienna minivans and Class 8 Peterbilt Model 579 tractors. (Image: Aurora Innovation)

Aurora also conducts airflow simulation tests to ensure its sensors don’t create unnecessary aerodynamic drag. The best way to avoid this is to fully integrate sensor pods into the body of the trucks instead of bolting it to the surface.

A big brake job

C.R. England is taking its trucks in for a brake job writ large. The carrier, one of the nation’s largest refrigerated haulers, will equip its entire fleet of 4,000 Freightliner Cascadia and Navistar International trucks to ZF Maxxus L2.0 air disc brakes ZF by the end of 2024.

This is a big deal for more than its enormity. Every time Salt Lake City-based C.R. England buys a new truck — about 1,300 a year — it gets the new disc brakes in place of factory-installed drum brakes. Drum brakes require more frequent replacement depending on the use. Air disc brakes need only a change of pads for wear. Maintenance depends on the truck’s life cycle.

ZF Maxxus 2.0 brakes weigh in at 67 pounds. (Image: ZF North America)

First-generation commercial air brakes had performance issues, giving them a bad rap among fleets, which made drum brakes the industry norm. But drum brakes don’t do as well going downhill because reduced friction material traction can occur. Fleets are giving new-generation disc brakes another look because of safety and  their positive impact on total cost of ownership.

Maxxus L2.0 brakes weigh in at 67 pounds because of a single-piston design that has fewer parts than double-piston designs. They also are less complex, allowing for faster and easier maintenance, according to ZF.

3 questions with Chris Hammond of Great Dane

FTR Transportation Intelligence reported this week that older trailers are getting gussied up and put back on the road to address the lack of new equipment available. I asked Great Dane sales chief Chris Hammond about this and some other issues.

FreightWaves: Are you hearing anecdotes from customers with older dry vans putting them back into service?

Hammond: “Yes, a lot of older equipment has been brought in for repairs so that those units can be road ready.”

FreightWaves: FTR is calling the market “as stable as it’s ever been,” with pent-up demand growing with a boom in orders expected when the supply chain crisis eases or ends. Do you subscribe to this?

Hammond: “Demand looks strong as trailer and truck body orders continue, mixed with growth in the last-mile segment. With COVID looking like it might finally be in the rearview, and supply chain issues easing, things are looking better than they have for our industry in quite a while.”

FreightWaves: Are any specific components needed in trailer manufacturing at risk because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine?

Hammond: “It’s certainly terrible what is happening overseas right now, and we are keeping an eye on things. While there could be disruptions on a global scale for our industry, at Great Dane, we continue to work with our supplier partners [in America] to ensure components reach our plants without disruption.”

That’s it for this week. Thanks for reading. Click here to get Truck Tech in your mailbox on Fridays.


The FREIGHTWAVES TOP 500 For-Hire Carriers list includes C.R. England (No. 27).