Drone truck startup Einride unveils new driverless vehicles for autonomous freight hauling

Einride

The company’s cab-less prototypes are set to hit the road in 2021

Einride, the Swedish autonomous trucking startup, unveiled a new vehicle type that the company hopes to have on the road delivering freight starting in 2021. The vehicles, dubbed Autonomous Electric Transport (AET), came in four different variations. And much like Einride’s previous prototypes, they come without steering wheels, pedals, windshields, and, in general, no cab at all.

Einride has been in the business of releasing interesting, eye-catching prototype vehicles since it was founded in 2016. There was the cab-less T-Pod, released in 2017, four of which are operating on public roads hauling freight for Oatly, the Swedish food producer. A year later, the company unveiled the T-Log, built to be more powerful than its predecessor for the job of (you guessed it) hauling tons of giant tree logs. Now it has a next-generation vehicle that it hopes it can put into production.

Einride

Einride’s also been engaged with the less glamorous part of the job, which is testing, validating, and seeking regulatory approval for its vehicles, all of which are electric and can be controlled remotely by a human operator, in addition to operating autonomously without human intervention. The company has yet to reveal its plans for production and manufacturing.

Design-wise, the AET vehicles look almost identical to Einride’s Pod (previously T-Pod) prototype: sleek, white, cab-less pods with smooth lines and an otherworldly feel. Einride CEO Robert Falck said the AET is more aerodynamic than previous iterations, which will help when the company starts to scale up its manufacturing. “When you nail a design the first time, why reinvent the wheel?” Falck said.

The new AET vehicles come in four levels. The first two — AET 1 and AET 2 — have top speeds of 30 km/h (18 mph), weigh 26 tons, have payloads of 16 tons, and a battery range of 130-180 km (80-110 miles). AET 3 and AET 4 have similar weight and payload capacity, with top speeds of 45 km/h and 85 km/h, respectively.

Einride

The main difference between the four variants is their operational domain, or conditions under which the car can drive autonomously. The AET 1 is designed to operate within a geofence, or a defined geographic area, while AET 2 is permitted to travel outside a geofence using teleoperation. AET 3 is designed for rural settings, and AET 4 for highway driving. Or as Falck puts it:

The next generation Pod is a singular vehicle, but operates in up to four different operational domains (AET levels). So for example if a customer orders a Pod with AET 3 capability, it is able to operate in closed facilities (AET 1 – Fenced), on nearby delivery routes (AET 2 – Nearby), and on back roads between destinations at speeds up to 45 km/h (AET 3 – Rural). Every Pod, regardless of AET level, is capable of SAE level 4 autonomous drive and able to be remotely operated when necessary.

In terms of tech features, each Pod will be nearly identical, with some different hardware and software configurations depending both on unique customer needs and operational domain demands. That means an electric drivetrain, proprietary telematics hardware that interfaces with the freight mobility platform, and autonomous drive hardware such as LIDAR, cameras, and sensors on each Pod.

Einride claims its new vehicles will “reduce transport costs by up to 60 percent and CO2 emissions by a staggering 90 percent” — a bold but impossible to fact-check claim, given the company doesn’t have a fully scaled business yet.

Einride’s vision for cab-less freight haulers has helped it raise a modest amount of money: $25 million in 2019 and another $10 million earlier this month from existing investors. The company recently demonstrated how one operator, essentially working as a traffic controller, can control multiple pods at once.

The company says it is using Nvidia’s self-driving software to achieve Level 4 (meaning completely driverless under certain conditions) driving. The trucks can also be controlled by a remote operator who is located hundreds of miles away using Phantom Auto’s teleoperation technology. The use of this technology may help Einride overcome the hurdles presented by off-road driving.

Most experts believe that the first industry to be affected by autonomous driving will be the trucking sector. What better use case for driverless technology than long-haul trucking where most of the driving is confined to the highway? But Einride has a bolder vision that includes off-roading and heavy-duty cargo.

No doubt the image of a cab-less truck will further stoke fears that autonomous technology will lead to enormous displacement in the workforce — or just fears about the safety of a tractor-trailer sized vehicle without a human driver. (Remember the movie Logan?) In the US, 4.4 million jobs are related to driving; of those, trucking jobs comprise about 2.5 million. A recent study found that automated trucks could reduce the demand for drivers by as much as 50 to 70 percent in the US and Europe by 2030, with 4.4 million of the 6.4 million professional drivers on both continents rendered obsolete.

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