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Could Embark’s Driverless Trucks Actually Create Jobs For Truckers?

The autonomous truck company has a middleware model that could ease the transition for drivers and shipping companies.

Could Embark’s Driverless Trucks Actually Create Jobs For Truckers?
[Photo: courtesy of Embark]

It is too easy to think that merely making something futuristic will usher in the future. Case in point: Even tech analysts are guilty of assuming that driverless trucking will decimate the industry in just a few years. But innovation trickles down slowly when you’re talking about massively expensive items such as trucks, which cost around $150,000 and last 30 years. For proof, just look at how many electric cars grace our highways: around 500,000 total. Ford sells a million F-series trucks every year.

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Embark founder Alex Rodrigues [Photo: courtesy of Embark]
“The first fully autonomous trucks will be here earlier than anyone expects, and the last will be here much later,” says Alex Rodrigues, the 22-year-old founder of Embark, a driverless trucking startup with the novel idea of partnering with the trucking industry rather than rolling over it. Embark has created a unique model for trucking–one that Rodrigues says will actually create more trucking jobs (at least in the short run). The company’s theory that a robot-human partnership can work started being put to the test last month, when an Embark truck began to deliver shipments on behalf of Frigidaire.

Embark’s retrofitted 18-wheelers can already drive themselves while on interstate highways. Where it gets tricky is near cities, which are still too complex for driverless trucks to navigate. To compensate, Embark operates hand-off depots, where a skilled human takes over for the last few miles of driving. Currently, the highway portion of the trip, where the truck drives itself, is overseen by a team of two drivers who switch off regularly so they can stay alert while monitoring the system, and an engineer; the expectation is that eventually those drivers won’t be needed at all.

[Photo: courtesy of Embark]
“I think they’re on to something,” says Steve Viscelli, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania and author of The Big Rig: Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream. Viscelli points out that such a model could increase fuel efficiency, because long-haul and short-haul trucks require different technologies to run clean. Yet another impact of Embark’s model might be to provide new work to drivers who have already quit long-haul trucking because of the demanding lifestyle.

Eagle-eyed readers might be thinking: If those highway drivers eventually won’t be needed, why does Embark think it’ll grow the number of trucking jobs? The simple reason is that there is a labor shortfall already constraining the long-haul trucking industry.

In a previous era, long-haul trucking was a reliable, high-paying job in many regions hit by declining manufacturing jobs. But increasing numbers of people have moved to cities, and attitudes toward work-travel have changed. “There’s a job shortage in long-haul because younger generations just don’t want to be away,” says Embark’s Rodrigues. The pay is low and the romance of the open road quickly gives way to loneliness. That’s shown in the industry’s astounding levels of yearly turnover, which often reach 300%. Some analysts have estimated that there’s already a 50,000-person annual shortfall in the long-distance trucking industry, which comprises about 800,000 jobs. By 2027, that number has been projected to grow as high as 175,000.

This shift is already reshaping the industry: Work is under way to deepen seaports on the east coast because of a bottle-neck in long-haul trucking capacity. The idea is get a shipment within 100 miles of its destination, whereupon a regional driver can take it the rest of the way. Regional truckers are far more easy to hire than long-haul truckers, because they don’t have to spend weeks away from home and can work regular hours.

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Embark is hitching onto that same insight. Their software would create a low-cost way to serve undesirable routes that might otherwise wither; for every new route they serve, there would also be new demand for a regional trucker to finish off the city-based portion of a trip. For some trucking companies such as Ryder, who recently partnered with Embark, this might serve as a competitive edge.

Armed with Embark trucks for long-haul routes, Ryder is betting it can grow its overall business even as competitors are faced with a labor shortage. “This could be leveraged to redefine our transportation networks, and Embark is developing a real solution to the driver shortage,” says Chris Nordh, senior director of advanced vehicle technologies & global fuel products at Ryder.

“I do think you’re going to have an increase in short haul,” adds Viscelli, the sociologist, speaking of Embark’s model. “The question is whether wages will stay high because so many drivers are sitting on the sidelines.”

Long-term, Rodrigues concedes that it’s only a matter of time until the industry is fully automated, and that this move will indeed cost jobs. But he says that what Embark is offering is a way for trucking companies to manage the transition of their overall business. That was the insight that led Rodrigues to start Embark along with Brandon Moak when they were both robotics students at the University of Waterloo, one of Canada’s clearing houses for technical talent. After setting out to build a driverless truck, the duo began talking to actual truck drivers. Time and again, they’d hear a litany of details that they hadn’t thought about, from collecting the right paperwork to checking on bills of lading. Sure, you might imagine a future in which all those things are automated by software. But these were hard problems involving many layers of ingrained habits, regulations, and IT. “Too often, people hear problems from the industry and brush them aside, saying, ‘We’ll just deal with them,'” Rodrigues says. “But there’s a lot of hard problems you can’t solve if you’re trying to get something on the road quickly.”

[Photo: courtesy of Embark]
They founded Embark, landed $17 million in venture backing, and set out to sign up as many partners as possible before giants such as Tesla or Volvo undercut their market. But crucially, Embark doesn’t want to sell any trucks. Instead, they hope to shed their fleet and become a software company. So when a multinational such as Electrolux buys another truck to ship its home appliances, they might procure it from Peterbilt–but they’ll buy a software kit from Embark to automate that truck. The company that owns the trucks, rather than Embark, would then operate the fleet.

It’s not a huge stretch to think that trucking companies, rather than waiting for their industry to contract in the years before full-blown autonomous driving arrives, will want to use a stop-gap solution. “Long-term, they’ll be able to handle this transition in a more controllable way,” says Rodrigues.

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After all, if you’re a trucking CEO, it’s probably far more appealing to set the pace change than to fear it.

About the author

Cliff is director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.

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