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The Road to the Autonomous Truck

Tech Startups Join Race to Make Self-Driving Trucks a Reality


Starsky Robotics

This story appears in the June 12 print edition of iTECH, a supplement to Transport Topics.

The trucking industry’s march toward self-driving trucks is gaining momentum as new developers attempt to accelerate the pace of innovation.

Ride-hailing giant Uber Technologies Inc. and a growing number of Silicon Valley tech startups are racing to develop systems that enable heavy-duty trucks to drive themselves on highways with no driver input — and perhaps no driver at all.

That’s a more aggressive approach to automation than the vision outlined by the industry’s more established players, which are investing in systems designed to assist rather than replace the driver.

Truck manufacturers and their braking suppliers are pursuing a more gradual move toward higher automation, starting with the next wave of advanced driver-assist features such as lane keeping assist, traffic jam assist and truck platooning.

BEST OF JUNE iTECH: More stories, columns

LIVEONWEB: Watch replay of 'The Road to Automated Driving'

While that path may lead eventually to highway “autopilot” systems that would enable the driver to disengage from the act of driving under certain conditions, truck makers remain adamant that the driver will continue to play an essential role in trucking for the foreseeable future.

Tech startups, in contrast, see unmanned trucks on highways as a much nearer-term goal, at least in a limited capacity.

Industry consultant Richard Bishop said these tech startups simply won’t attract funding if they take a conservative approach to automation.

“They’ve got to shoot for the stars, and that’s what they’re doing,” he said. “On paper, the business case is awesome if you can go driverless.”

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By Seth Clevenger
Managing Editor, Features


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