Electric driverless truck set to gain approval for public roads

Swedish autonomous vehicle start-up Einride and German logistics group DB Schenker expect regulatory approval within weeks allowing an all-electric, driverless truck to carry freight on a public road. The two groups said the permit would be a world first, enabling the commercial operation of a battery-powered truck to operate without a driver, following a pilot phase in operation since early November. “An all-electric, autonomous truck has never been put to commercial use before,” said Filip Lilja, who co-founded Einride in 2016 alongside Robert Falck, a former Volvo Trucks executive.

Einride and DB Schenker each said they expected to gain the permit by January. The 7.5-tonne “smart container on wheels” is called the T-Pod. Resembling a Star Wars stormtrooper helmet, the vehicle lacks a steering wheel or foot pedal — or even a driver cabin, which can be half the cost of building a truck — offering more room for freight.

Powered by the Nvidia Drive platform, a powerful graphic card to process real-time, high-resolution visual data from the sensors and radar, the vehicle is considered “Level 4” Autonomous. An operator, sitting hundreds of miles away, can supervise up to 10 vehicles at once and take over when needed to navigate difficult terrain. To achieve “Level 5” a vehicle must operate without a driver in all conditions.

The T-Pod is a 7.5-tonne ‘smart container on wheels’ and does not have a steering wheel or foot pedal

“There is no driver in the vehicle, but there is a possibility to remotely drive it, almost like a drone,” said Jochen Thewes, chief executive of the logistics company owned by Deutsche Bahn.

The Swedish Transport Agency already allows the T-Pod to operate as a pilot project going back and forth between two DB Schenker warehouses in Jonkoping, central Sweden. The agency said it was reviewing an application that would allow the vehicle to operate commercially but it declined to say how long it would take. The distance the single T-Pod would travel is quite short, just six miles a day and on only 100m of public roads where it would encounter human driver vehicles, but Mr Falck maintained it would still be a milestone achievement.

“The Wright brothers flew 300 metres the first time they took off,” he said. “History is made in small steps.” Einride, a top 10 finalist in Sir Richard Branson’s 2019 “Extreme Tech Challenge,” has just 55 employees, most of whom are engineers. In addition to the T-Pod for transferring goods, the T-Log, its newest model, is made for hauling up to 16,000kg of timber over forest roads.

The T-Log is made for hauling up to 16,000kg of timber over forest roads

Mr Thewes said the partnership was symbolic of how the wider logistics industry is maintaining its competitive edge against a host of technology groups pushing into its territory.

For DB Schenker to succeed, he said, it must win the “war for talent” by taking the lead in reducing carbon emissions and introducing cutting-edge technology. “The industry we are in is, by definition, one of the biggest polluters out there,” he said. “[But] we have the means, the capability to do something about it.” Einride has no intention of selling the vehicles; rather, it leases them and works with clients on a service model.

Another client engaging in a pilot project is Lidl, the German grocery chain. For freight customers the lack of a driver, lower fuel costs, and ability to operate day and night should be an attractive proposition, Mr Lilja said. “Crunch the numbers, and it’s clear that self-driving technology combined with electrification is the future of road freight transport,” he added.

Additional reporting by Richard Milne

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