Weekly Brief: Fledgling Driverless Outfit Butters Up Fleet Market

A shipment of 40,000-lbs of butter was the first self-driving freight cross-country delivery in the United States.

Autonomous truck start-up Plus.ai completed the delivery over the Thanksgiving break. The 2,900-mile trip started at the Land O’Lakes production facility in Tulare, California, and ended at a warehouse in Quakertown, Pennsylvania. In between, the autonomous truck faced an impressive array of conditions, from night time driving to rain and blustery snow. At no time did it disengage from autonomous mode, although there was a safety driver behind the wheel at all times and he did intervene at several points but only for fuel and at mandatory rest stops. The trip took 41 hours.

To be clear, this isn’t the first time an autonomous truck has criss-crossed America. More than a dozen companies are working to realize self-driving trucks and some of them are far larger and more established than three-year-old start-up Plus.ai. In that respect, we shouldn’t overplay the importance of this one moment. The butter headline smacks of a start-up trying to get some media coverage and insert itself into the upper echelon of companies working on this today.

Companies like TuSimple, a San-Diego start-up that is valued at more than $1Bn and is running pilots in China and the US. Tesla is working on a self-driving big rig and already has sizable pre-orders from global brands like PepsiCo and Anheuser-Busch. Daimler released its production-ready semi-autonomous Cascadia in January 2019 and Volvo Trucks has an autonomous vehicle named Vera that is already helping to transport giant shipping crates from a logistics center to a port terminal in Gothenburg, Sweden. Last week our Paul Myles detailed how Volvo is also actively pursuing electrified trucking options.

Yet, just because Plus.ai is smaller and may have groomed this moment for the media spotlight, that shouldn’t strip away its significance. First of all, it’s a big deal that a company like Land O’Lakes, with a perishable product, hired the fledgling company to make a cross-country delivery in a fully autonomous truck on deadline at a holiday, through low visibility and inclement conditions. Moreover, many of the start-up’s deeper-pocketed competitors are focused on short-term hauling. Plus.ai is focused on long haul and just illustrated that its advanced autonomous driving system, which is built around a combination of LiDAR, radar and cameras, seems to be up to the task.

Most analysts and industry professionals agree that the trucking industry will form the leading edge of the autonomous driving revolution. Unlike robo-taxi fleets, which will operate in chaotic city centers and face stiff competition in over-saturated transportation markets, self-driving trucks can operate in the relative comfort of the open highway and serve companies that face a shortage of transportation options. Consider Land O’Lakes, which faces peak demand during the holidays and, like many producers, struggles to find adequate trucks and truckers to haul its freight.

“End of the year is a very busy time for us,” said Yone Dewberry, Land O’Lakes’ chief supply chain officer. “To be able to address this peak demand with a fuel- and cost-effective freight transport solution will be tremendously valuable to our business.”

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