California-based startup Embark unveils new self-driving truck


Embark, a new self-driving technology startup based in San Mateo, California, has unveiled its autonomous truck technology, which allows commercial vehicles to drive from exit to exit on the freeway without any human input.

Earlier this year, Embark gained approval from the State of Nevada to begin testing its truck on public roads, with the vehicle using a combination of radars, cameras, and lidar depth sensors to perceive the world around it. The millions of data points from these sensors are processed using a form of Artificial Intelligence (AI) known as Deep Neural Nets (DNNs) that allow the truck to learn from its own experience, in a similar way that humans learn from practice.

Embark’s truck is built specifically to handle long, simple stretches of freeway driving between cities, rather than all aspects of driving. At the city limit, the company’s computerized truck hands over to a human driver who navigates the city streets to the destination. A human driver will still touch every load, but with Embark they are able to move more loads per day, handing over hundreds of miles of freeway driving to their ‘robotic partners’.

According to Alex Rodrigues, CEO and co-founder of Embark, the idea for the project came after blowing a tire on the interstate and waiting four hours for the tow truck to arrive. “Every single 18-wheeler that drove past had a sign on the back saying ‘Drivers Wanted’. It was so clear there was a shortage of drivers,” explained Rodrigues.

“The numbers back that up. The American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI) estimates there is currently a shortage of 100,000 truck drivers in the industry, which is poised to only get worse as baby boomer drivers, the bulk of the industry’s workforce, retire over the next decade. Our goal is to increase productivity per driver and prevent the shortage from becoming a crisis.”

Rodrigues has a long history with robotics, with one of his autonomous shuttles transporting over 1,000 passengers in demonstrations across California. Rodrigues started Embark by recruiting talent from several autonomous technology leaders, including SpaceX, StanfordAI, and Audi’s self-driving team. The team is backed by a multi-million-dollar investment led by Maven Ventures, which has previous experience with self-driving technology, having sold Cruise Automation to General Motors (GM) for US$1bn last year. Embark plans to quadruple its engineering team within the next year and aggressively expand its testing fleet to show that the technology is ready for the USA’s highways.

“We are committed to proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that this technology is safe and reliable,” said Rodrigues. “That means performing extensive tests and working with our partners in the government to get it, and the market, ready. Analyzing terabyte upon terabyte of real-world data, our DNNs have learned how to see through glare, fog and darkness on their own. We’ve programmed them with a set of rules to help safely navigate most situations, how to safely learn from the unexpected, and how to apply that experience to new situations going forward.”

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Tom has edited Traffic Technology International (TTi) magazine and its Traffic Technology Today website since May 2014. During his time at the title, he has interviewed some of the top transportation chiefs at public agencies around the world as well as CEOs of leading multinationals and ground-breaking start-ups. Tom's earlier career saw him working on some the UK's leading consumer magazine titles. He has a law degree from the London School of Economics (LSE).