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December 10, 2019 12:00 PM, EST

Spread the News: Self-Driving Truck Makes Cross-Country Butter Delivery

Self-DrivingA Plus.ai truck. (Plus.ai via YouTube)

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A Silicon Valley startup has completed what appears to be the first commercial freight cross-country trip by an autonomous truck, which finished a 2,800-mile-run from Tulare, Calif., to Quakertown, Pa., for Land O’Lakes in less than three days. The trip was smooth like butter, 40,000 pounds of it.

Plus.ai, a 3-year-old company in Cupertino, announced the milestone Dec. 10. A safety driver was aboard the autonomous semi, ready to take the wheel if needed, along with a safety engineer who observed the proceedings.

“We wanted to demonstrate the safety, reliability and maturity of our overall system,” Shawn Kerrigan, co-founder and chief operating officer, said Dec.9. The company’s system uses cameras, radar and lidar — laser-based technology to help vehicles determine distance — and handled well the different terrains and weather conditions such as rain and low visibility, he said.

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The truck, which traveled on interstates 15 and 70 right before Thanksgiving, had to take scheduled breaks but drove mostly autonomously. There were zero “disengagements,” or times the self-driving system had to be suspended because of a problem, Kerrigan said.

Plus.ai has been running freight every week for about a year, its COO said, but this is the first cross-country trip and partnership it has talked about publicly.

End of year is peak butter time, according to Land O’Lakes.

“To be able to address this peak demand with a fuel- and cost-effective freight transport solution will be tremendously valuable to our business,” Yone Dewberry, the butter maker’s chief supply officer, said in a statement.

How long will it be before self-driving trucks are delivering goods regularly across the nation’s highways? Kerrigan thinks it’s a few years away.

Dan Ives, managing director of equity research for Wedbush Securities, predicts there will be several autonomous freight-delivery pilots in 2020 and 2021, with the beginning of a commercial rollout in 2022. Like other experts, he believes the trucking industry will be the first to adopt autonomous technology on a mass scale.

The timeline will depend on regulations, which vary by state, he said.

About 15 companies nationwide are working on autonomous freight delivery, Ives said. That includes San Francisco-based self-driving truck startup Embark Trucks, which last year completed a five-day, 2,400-mile cross-country trip. But that truck carried no freight.

“When the [freight] trucks can go long distance, that’s when there will be significant ROI” on the autonomous technology, Ives said.

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