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September 25, 2019 4:00 PM, EDT

Embark to Open Transfer Hubs to Shift Freight to Self-Driving Trucks

Aerial of Embark truck and logo Embark Trucks

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Self-driving trucking startup Embark Trucks announced it will open two transfer hubs to switch freight to its automated trucks.

The plan is part of $70 million in Series C financing led by Tiger Global Management, with participation from seven other firms. The new financing round brings its fundraising total to $117 million.

The drop-and-hook hubs are a key factor to accelerating its path to market, with the first ones located in Los Angeles and Phoenix, according to the San Francisco-based company. The hubs are intended to provide a common location for local drivers to deliver freight where Embark can stage and inspect trailers before its automated trucks drive them across the country.

Five Fortune 500 customers have signed up to move freight on the network when it opens this fall, Embark reported Sept. 25.

“These are places we hold the lease on, and that we put in the modifications that are needed to operate them as transfer hubs,” Embark CEO Alex Rodrigues told Transport Topics.

A video on social media shows a human-driven truck arriving at a fenced location with 10 parking spaces for trailers, a couple of small buildings and an automatic gate. The driver enters, drops the trailer they brought and leaves with another one.

Then what Embark calls a “hub technician” hooks up the arriving trailer to one of its automated trucks, does a pre-trip inspection and handles other responsibilities previously done by a longhaul driver. The automated truck pulls out. Currently, Embark trucks always have a safety driver and operate at what SAE International defines as a Level 2 system (that can control steering, accelerating and braking independent of driver input).

“We think the hubs are a key piece of deploying this at Level 4 (in which the truck can drive itself under certain conditions without any driver input or backup assistance). So this isn’t like a temporary piece. We think this is a big piece of how you take a truck that operates on the freeway and make it available to an entire city overnight,” Rodrigues added.

The transfer hubs are designed to solve the hard operational challenges required to deploy Level 4 self-driving trucks — docking the trailer, loading, inspections and paperwork, he said.

Embark load transfer

A blue Embark automated truck heads for the trailer that a human driver in the white cab has just dropped off. (Embark Trucks)

Both new transfer hubs are strategically located just off the freeway, which allows Embark’s trucks to operate without needing to drive through challenging driving conditions in urban areas, which Embark maintains have stymied self-driving car developers in recent years.

“After spending time with our customers over the last two years we realized that transitioning to self-driving trucks had many challenges beyond getting a truck to safely drive down the road,” Rodrigues said. “Our big customers also rely on the truckers they work with to navigate their yards, to load freight and process paperwork. Big distribution centers aren’t going to change that anytime soon.”

He added: “Deploying these transfer hubs allows our customers to have trusted local drivers handle pickup and gives them access to the benefits of self-driving trucks without needing to change anything about the way they do business.”

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The new funding will also help the company add employees — it is at 70 now — and expand its fleet of 13 trucks.

Rodrigues declined to discuss how many employees he expects to add in all, or the growth of its fleet.