You would know if you’ve seen an Einride truck. It’s washed in white, ditches a traditional rectangular design in favor of eccentric angles, and has no driver or steering wheel, let alone a cab.
Soon, these quirky Swedish trucks—or “pods,” as the company calls them—will be seen on U.S. roads. The first company to operate all-electric, autonomous trucks for commercial use, Einride will open up a U.S. HQ in Austin by the end of the year, after raising $110 million to help finance the stateside launch.
As autonomous trucking competitors have focused on giving makeovers to their existing diesel fleets, Einride, founded in 2016, decided to design a new system from scratch. The company’s main driver was sustainability: Now newly refined, Einride’s pods reportedly reduce carbon emissions by 94% compared to diesel trucks. That’s all while being able to carry 35,000 pounds of goods—about the same payload as a classic American semi—but in a space that’s about six times more compact (it’s about 21 feet long and eight feet wide, versus a semi’s 72 feet by 13.5 feet).
The company is already making deliveries within closed facilities and on minor roads in Sweden; by 2022 or 2023, Einride expects its pods to be on busier roads and freeways. While the pods drive themselves, remote human operators oversee their progress on the roads. Humans can step in and fully drive the pods if necessary, but even at high speeds, the pods are designed to make “non-time-sensitive tactical decisions.” (On the Top Gear track, the pod reached speeds of up to 52 mph.)
Later this year, the pods will roll out in a number of locations in the U.S. under pilot programs, for which the company has already obtained regulatory approval; it hopes to expand to wider operational deliveries in 2022, and is working with federal, state, and local authorities for more approvals. Einride also employs conventional, 18-wheel electric trucks—such as the ones used by Oatly, a key partner. The Oatly collaboration will continue in the U.S., eventually delivering with both the traditional and autonomous trucks in tandem.
CEO Robert Falck spoke to Fast Company about the American launch—and things got philosophical. He discussed sustainability, the U.S. Constitution, and how ice-sawing in Scandinavia might illustrate how humans can adapt to robots.
Fast Company: Why was the U.S. the first target for expansion outside of Sweden?
Robert Falck: I think that American companies are much more engaged when it comes to making this transition than we probably see across Europe. You have a willingness and an interest in testing, and validating, and challenging. I think that’s a big, fundamental piece of why the U.S. tends to be the most progressive when it comes to adopting new technology.
The U.S. has been the the driver for innovation for at least, say, 150 years. I consider the biggest innovation in the history of mankind is the American Constitution—it’s been the game-changer in the modern world. And that spirit’s still there. I think the big answers to the major questions in the world will be answered in the U.S. for the next generation or century, as well. We want to be a player in that.
How big a priority is sustainability—especially as the U.S. is one of the greatest carbon emitters?
For us, sustainability isn’t the ambition. Sustainability is a prerequisite. The whole essence, the whole DNA of what we do, is to create something better. You can’t proclaim that something is better if it’s not sustainable. Our clients and customers see that they can get the win-win: [We] can be cost-competitive and sustainable.
Today, less than 1% of global freight transport is sustainable. If we don’t make a change, that will not change; the current industry has a lot of interest in keeping it as it is. It depends on how you produce electricity [and] it varies a little bit from client to client—but if you do electric freight transport, you could reduce CO2 emissions by up to 99%.
Why have you been able to make strides where others haven’t?
I think that a lot of our competitors are still putting up extra sails to the sailboat, instead of going for the steam engine. It’s a lot of retrofitting, a lot of adding on to existing platforms. We said: “How could you do this if you started over?”
I was very provoked by an industry that didn’t really want to change. If the industry had the choice, they would make diesel platforms autonomous, because that would be the best business for them. For me, it was so important to tell a different narrative and prove that you can combine electric and autonomous technologies, and that the future doesn’t have to be dependent on diesel. Five years ago, that was extremely provocative.
When you see the big rigs going down the interstate, most of them are empty. If you designed a system from scratch, you would make smaller, more agile vehicles, and do more direct transport. There will be a lot of applications for bigger, heavier vehicles as well, but the big bulk of transport will be fast-moving, smaller units, because it’s just more cost-efficient.
In the U.S., there are constant debates about robots threatening to take jobs—especially in trucking. Is a company like yours going to kill jobs?
A big part of our mission is that we want to create safer, more well-paid jobs. That’s going to be the consequence of these kinds of systems. Anyone who claims that these magical beings called “autonomous trucks” will do without humans—I would call them straight-up liars. We have designed and developed the system: You have a human driver, the central piece of the whole system, [doing] the decision-making, the controlling, securing that the space is safe and everything is working. It’s what we’re calling an “operator of autonomous trucks.” It’s the truck driver 2.0.
How do you plan to assure people that that’s the case?
This is what historically has happened in every major transition like this. I grew up on a small farm, very close to the Norwegian border. When my grandfather was young, his job was literally sawing ice. He went out to the frozen lake, sawed the ice by hand, and pulled up the big chunks, then transported [the ice] out to the fishing industry.
Then, in the ’50s, came the ice machine that could mysteriously produce ice without making anyone go out on a frozen lake. That game-changed the whole industry, and made it better—safer. That machine was the prerequisite for being able to export even more [fish], so the whole fishing industry started to boom. A lot of people got employed in the fishing industry. So there were new types of jobs—and the same people who in the ’50s were sawing ice, were now sitting, enjoying a chilled cocktail with ice from the ice machine.
Truck driving is one of the most hazardous jobs you can have. You spend a lot of time away from your family. The bottom line is that we have a global shortage. Truck drivers, we’ve seen, are the ones who actually have the most interest in what we do. It’s corporations that are using their influence to uphold existing structures, because that’s how they make their money. The next-generation truckers will be better-paid, they will be in a safe environment. They will be very comfortable jobs, compared to today.”
What’s the role of the entrepreneur in industrial transitions like this one?
Our role as entrepreneurs is to showcase a potential future [that] can be a bit better for all of us. We all have a moral obligation to discuss how we can create something better. Then, it’s up to society to adapt the best possible solution. I think that all transitional technology shifts are going to change society; so far, we have managed to do it for the better. Technology for electric-autonomous has the potential to solve the greatest challenge of our generation: unsustainable CO2 emissions. This is a good use case where we should deploy the new technology to serve mankind.