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Self-Driving Trucks: The Future of Long Haul Transportation?

On May 6th, 2015, commercial vehicle manufacturer Daimler unveiled a high-tech, self-driving semi-trailer truck at a ceremony at the Hoover Dam in Nevada. Rapid advancements in autonomous trucking technology suggest that the growing industry could have the ability to tackle the United States’ existing long-haul transportation and logistics woes.


On May 6th, 2015, commercial vehicle manufacturer Daimler unveiled a high-tech, self-driving semi-trailer truck at a ceremony at the Hoover Dam in Nevada. Named the Freightliner Inspiration, the truck was the first licensed autonomous commercial truck to operate on a U.S. public highway.

Thanks to its onboard Highway Pilot mode, the Freightliner Inspiration could drive itself on the highway, adjust steering, maintain a safe following distance, and control gas and brakes. That said, the truck wasn’t fully autonomous—it still required a human driver for non-highway driving, adverse conditions, and precise maneuvers like docking at loading bays.

Nonetheless, Daimler’s proof-of-concept signaled the genesis of a new industry. In the ensuing eight years, a deluge of innovation, partnerships, on-road tests, and pilot programs would help the trucking industry make significant progress toward the ultimate goal of complete autonomy.

During this time, several scrappy startups emerged as leaders in the nascent autonomous trucking industry. For instance, TuSimple made headlines in mid-2020 when the company—then just five years old—introduced the world’s first Autonomous Freight Network in partnership with UPS, Penske, U.S. Xpress, and McLane.

A little over a year later, the San Diego-based startup completed the world’s first public road test without a human on the truck. By March 2023, TuSimple had logged over 10 million miles through testing, research, and freight delivery.

Similarly, Google spinoff Waymo began testing its autonomous technology in 2017—onboard trucks that ferried freight to Google’s Atlanta data centers. In July 2020, the Alphabet, Inc. subsidiary raised $3.2 billion in external financing from T. Rowe Price, Fidelity Management & Research Company, Perry Creek Capital, and others.

The autonomous driving unit also rebranded its delivery business as Waymo Via and inked partnerships with DaimlerUPSJ.B. Hunt, and C.H. Robinson between 2020 and 2022.

Other companies like Embark focused on developing technology for long-haul journeys. In February 2018, the San Francisco-based startup’s autonomous truck completed a coast-to-coast trip from Los Angeles to Jacksonville, covering 2,400 miles primarily in autonomous mode while on the freeway.

Aurora Innovation also joined the scene in 2021, hauling freight for FedEx between Dallas and Houston.

In July 2022, Kodiak completed its first coast-to-coast autonomous freight run for USPS mail carrier 10 Roads Express, covering 5,600 miles between Texas, California, and Florida.

These rapid advancements in autonomous trucking technology suggest that the growing industry could have the ability to tackle the United States’ existing long-haul transportation and logistics woes.

Of course, the industry still has some distance to cover before it reaches full autonomy. After all, most self-driving tests and pilots conducted today still require a driver on board—with TuSimple’s trials being the only notable exception. In light of these roadblocks, what does the near-term path toward a fully driverless solution look like, and how soon can the industry get there?

Self-Driving Trucks Are Safer and More Efficient

Trucks are an integral part of the U.S. transportation system. According to the American Trucking Association, trucks moved almost 73% of the country’s total domestic tonnage in 2022. They generated $940.8 billion in gross freight revenues—equivalent to 80.7% of the nation’s total freight bill.

Reducing Traffic Fatalities

But long-haul trucking is a fairly hazardous occupation. In 2021, 5,700 large trucks were involved in fatal crashes, resulting in 5,788 deaths—a 17% increase from the year prior. Historically, nearly 90% of such accidents have been attributed to human error, an important statistic that autonomous trucking solutions could be especially equipped to curtail.

Crucially, self-driving software systems onboard trucks do not succumb to fatigue or lose concentration, even during long-haul journeys. Cameras and lidar scanners, which help autonomous driving technologies detect and avoid hazards on the road, can also give self-driving trucks an edge during snowstorms, nighttime, fog, or other low-visibility situations.

As evidence of this, Aurora studied 29 fatal crashes on the Interstate 45 corridor between Dallas and Houston. The results? Aurora’s autonomous driving system, the Aurora Driver, would have successfully avoided every single collision.

24/7 Trucking

Beyond safety, there’s efficiency. Current U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) regulations state that for every 24 hours, human truckers can spend at most 11 hours behind the wheel. Moreover, a maximum of eight of these 11 hours can be driven consecutively, and drivers must rest for 10 or more consecutive hours between driving shifts.

Autonomous trucks, on the other hand, face no such limitations—they can cruise seamlessly around the clock without the need for breaks. This means that companies running fully autonomous fleets can nearly triple their hours of operation and significantly increase the efficiency of their delivery routes.

Labor Shortage No Longer

Self-driving trucks may also be an antidote for the existing labor shortage in the trucking industry. Today, there are just 60,000 long-distance truck drivers in the country, a figure that has decreased roughly 26% from a high of 81,258 in 2021.

Although the advent of automation has led to growing concerns about potential job losses, self-driving trucks are not necessarily in competition with human drivers for the same routes. For example, autonomous trucks could enable companies to run undesirable and hard-to-staff journeys. Human drivers, meanwhile, would be left with more desirable first- and last-mile itineraries that allow them to remain closer to their homes and families.

Autonomous trucks are also creating a range of new job opportunities. For instance, Aurora has already spawned new roles like terminal operators, fleet support technicians, command center specialists, mapping quality specialists, and lidar and sensor engineers. These research, operations, and logistics roles will allow humans to support self-driving fleets and maintain the technologies onboard them.

Finally, there is a compelling financial case for self-driving trucks. A study conducted by TuSimple revealed that Level 4 autonomous trucks improved fuel efficiency by 11%. Another collaborative report by the Boston Consulting Group and Kodiak Robotics showed that autonomous driving technologies could reduce the total cost of ownership of long-haul trucks by over 30%.

A Rough Road Ahead

Although autonomous trucks promise partial (or complete) solutions to some of America’s most pressing logistics challenges, bringing them to market has proven difficult. Companies like Aurora Innovation, Embark Technology, and TuSimple—each of which went public during the special-purpose acquisition company (SPAC) boom of 2020 and 2021—have underperformed the broader market due to unprofitable operations and high research and development costs. Amidst funding shortfalls and waning investor confidence, some firms have dialed back plans, while others have shuttered entirely

Embark Technology is a notable victim. Founded in 2016, the San Francisco-headquartered company went public through a $5.2 billion SPAC deal in November 2021. In May 2023—a mere 16 months after going public—the company was acquired by Applied Intuition for just $71 million. TuSimple is similarly contemplating a sale of its U.S. operations to focus on its Asia-Pacific division. The move comes in the wake of scrutiny from the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) and the company’s termination of its alliance with Navistar. Alphabet subsidiary Waymo has likewise postponed the rollout of its driverless trucks as it concentrates on scaling up its robotaxis business.

Regulatory challenges add another layer of complexity to the industry’s struggles. The U.S. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) is still formulating a comprehensive regulatory framework for autonomous trucks. Currently, there is no uniform or cohesive legal framework for autonomous trucks at either the federal or state levels. While states like Texas have allowed extensive use and operation of autonomous trucks, others like California have imposed stricter restrictions.

Safety concerns have also been amplified following high-profile accidents involving self-driving trucks. In April 2022, a TuSimple truck collided with a concrete median divider in Tucson, Arizona. One month later a Waymo Via self-driving truck hit another semi-trailer truck. Although these accidents were not fatal and the investigations by FMCSA have since been closed, they highlight potential safety flaws, erode public trust, and invite regulatory scrutiny.

Self-Driving Trucks on the Road in 2024 and Beyond

Then again, this bumpy road ahead has done little to deter the industry’s most formidable contenders. Companies like Aurora Innovation and Kodiak Robotics are aiming to launch commercial self-driving trucks with a focus on SAE Level 4 automation, which allows trucks to operate without a driver on set conditions. 

Aurora Innovation

On November 1st, 2023, Aurora Innovation opened its first commercial-ready terminal in Houston, Texas. The facility—alongside its Palmer, Texas terminal—will facilitate the launch of Aurora Horizon, a completely driverless commercial shipping route on Interstate 45 between Houston and Dallas in late 2024.

In fact, the Pittsburgh-based company is already running 75 loads a week on the I-45 corridor, covering over 20,000 miles and delivering more than 3,200 loads for pilot customers like FedEx, Uber Freight, Werner, and Schneider. Unlike Aurora Horizon, these operations are overseen by licensed safety drivers and are not yet fully autonomous.

Kodiak Robotics

Budding challenger Kodiak Robotics has come a long way since making its first commercial delivery in 2019. In December 2022—less than five years after its founding—the company secured a $49.9 million contract with the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) to help automate future military ground vehicles.

In August 2023, Kodiak, in partnership with truck stop network Pilot Flying J, established its first truckport in Villa Rica, Georgia. The autonomous truck facility will be integrated into Kodiak’s 18,000-mile-long autonomous network. Later, in early October 2023, Kodiak launched a commercial autonomous trucking lane running from Houston to Oklahoma City in collaboration with Danish logistics company Maersk.

Currently, Kodiak covers 55,000 miles per month, transporting over six million pounds of freight for Maersk, IKEA, Werner, C.R. England, Tyson, 10 Roads Express, CEVA, Forward, and other partners.

By 2024, Kodiak will introduce an electric autonomous Class 8 truck to its fleet and kickstart fully driverless operations. Meanwhile, Loadsmith intends to purchase 800 autonomous driving systems from Kodiak by the latter half of 2025. 

Invest in Self-Driving Technologies

At Spaventa Group, we are excited about the technological advancements in the self-driving truck industry and the opportunities they present for our investors.

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