Could semi trucks become self-driving?

Just how hot is the self-driving vehicle space?

So hot that if you're a sharp 21-year-old with robotics experience and some smart friends, you can land millions to start your own company.

Embark, a new self-driving truck startup that launched Friday, is the brainchild of University of Waterloo buddies Alex Rodrigues and Brandon Moak, also 21. The Canadian duo has been working on a self-driving truck since last summer, and in January received the necessary paperwork to test the rig on Nevada public highways. The truck so far has logged 10,000 miles.

The main player in this space, Uber-owned Otto, has laid out a vision that would find drivers resting comfortably in their cab bunks while the truck does the exit-to-exit highway driving. The truck's radar, laser-radar, cameras and algorithm-fed computers manage the job of highly sophisticated, cruise-control highway driving.

Embark also is aiming for an exit-to-exit solution, but it wants the trucks to run completely without humans until they are met by drivers at exit-point meet-up points.

"We want to focus on trucking as opposed to cars because we think this is an area with an acute problem to solve, namely a shortage of long-haul drivers," says Rodrigues. "No one really wants to be away from home for long periods of time, and there's a 10x turnover rate for those drivers compared to people who work locally."

He adds that "the better paying jobs are also the local jobs, so the idea is the drivers would be in a staging area just on the freeway and take care of bringing the goods to their final destination."

The exact amount of Embark's seed round is private, but investors include Maven Ventures and SV Angels. Although the team numbers only 10 so far, including veterans of SpaceX and Audi, Rodrigues isn't worried about competition from Otto.

"There's a long way to go still, and I don't think it's the kind of race where the first person to develop the best tech wins," he says. "It will likely come down to having the best partnerships and working with regulators."

Embark's changes may have just improved. On Thursday, Waymo, formerly known as Google's self-driving car company, sued Otto, charging that that Otto co-founder Anthony Levandowski, who used to work for Google's program, stole proprietary sensor data that was used as the basis for Otto's tech.

Silicon Valley is known for meteoric rises, but Rodrigues is pushing the envelope. He built his self-driving golf cart in his parents' garage less than two years ago for $10,000.

But the multi-billion-dollar industry he's diving into is particularly frothy and eager for solutions, as both automakers (from Audi to Volvo) and tech companies (from massive Google-owned Waymo to tiny Drive.ai) fight to claim the best positions to profit from the coming autonomous car revolution.

Self-driving vehicle companies face a nest of issues in developing their product, including bad infrastructure (sensors often require good road markings to navigate) and rules that differ state to state (the California Department of Motor Vehicles is looking into allegations that Otto was testing illegally in California, although the company touted a successful 100-mile beer truck haul in Colorado).

Rodrigues says that Embark is hoping to add more self-driving trucks to its fleet this year as well as branch out into other states. Overall, he remains optimistic about both lawmaker and public adoption — even though the scenario, to some, will seem like a horror movie plot starring robot trucks gone bad.

"NHTSA (the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) seems particularly data-driven and focused on saving lives," he says, noting that road deaths have suddenly started to rise in the past two years. "Eleven people die daily in heavy truck crashes. That's a number everyone wants to reduce."

As for humans being spooked by huge semis with no one at the helm, Rodrigues is convinced that familiarity ultimately will build acceptance.

"Living in Mountain View you always see Google and other company's self-driving cars running around," he says. "When we started to develop a self-driving shuttle van (during a pre-Embark venture), our neighbors thought absolutely nothing of it. Eventually, I think we'll all be that way passing a self-driving truck on the highway."

Follow USA TODAY tech reporter Marco della Cava on Twitter: @marcodellacava

USA TODAY


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