Embark develops plug-and-play autonomous trucking system

Self-driving truck startup Embark Trucks Inc. has developed a plug-and-play autonomous trucking software package. It will work on Freightliner, Volvo, Peterbilt and International trucks. 

The development could make Level 4 technology a commodity even before competitors begin regular production.

“If Embark can create a system that can be installed on a variety of different trucks without massive rework and embedded development, that obviously creates an opportunity to accelerate deployment of autonomous trucks,” Mike Ramsey, a Gartner Inc. vice president and automotive and smart mobility analyst, told FreightWaves.

The Embark Universal Interface (EUI) uses a set of standardized self-driving components and flexible interfaces to integrate Embark’s autonomous technology into varied vehicle platforms, the company said in a press release Wednesday.

San Francisco-based Embark has been running Level 4 autonomous freight loads of refrigerators from El Paso, Texas, to Palm Springs, California, since 2017. That is longer than any of the companies jockeying to lead the self-driving trucking segment.

Pathway to integration

“We absolutely believe that integrating with [manufacturers] is the path to market for self-driving trucks,” said Alex Rodrigues, Embark co-founder and CEO. “We also believe that being cross-compatible and easy to integrate into all original equipment makers’ vehicles as their Level 4 platforms continue to develop gives us a competitive advantage.”

Major truck makers all have self-driving technology partners. The most recent tie-up — between Volvo Trucks and Aurora — was announced Tuesday. PACCAR Inc. also is working with Aurora. PACCAR and Volvo together account for more than 40% of the heavy-duty trucks sold in North America every year.

Daimler Trucks has an internal effort with its Torc Robotics unit. It also is working with Waymo Via independently. Navistar International Corp. (NYSE: NAV) owns 10% of TuSimple. It is the first autonomous trucking software companies to go public. 

Plus has a joint venture with China’s First Auto Works (FAW). It also works with four other truck makers it declines to name because of nondisclosure agreements.

All are testing and validating software that someday will alleviate the need to have a safety driver in the truck. TuSimple projects that could happen this year. Others are less aggressive on timing.

From the beginning, Embark has eyed building a universal system instead of designing to one manufacturer’s platform. It is a costly pursuit, requiring significant upfront investment in working through cross-platform trade-offs.

How it works

The EUI moves toward self-driving ubiquity through a two-part design. 

First is a standardized components package consisting of sensors and a “compute” system. Both went through thousands of hours of design, testing and analysis.

The second part is a set of physical, electrical and software interfaces that enables the standardized components package connecting and communicating with the steering, braking, throttle, telematics, power, chassis, and heating, ventilation and air conditioning of any manufacturer’s truck.

“The EUI program leveraged input from multiple [manufacturers] and Tier 1 suppliers,” Embark Chief Technology Officer Brandon Moak told FreightWaves. “This input has come over years of collaboration. And [it] ranges from technology roadmaps to hardware schematics to detailed software specifications.”

Making autonomous systems portable

“Many developers say that this approach is difficult because of the need to design specific sensors and ‘compute’ and package them with the vehicle in the development process,” Ramsey said.

“However, if the dream of these tech firms to create a ‘driver’ for autonomous vehicles is going to come true, it makes sense that the driver be portable to different vehicle types without moving mountains.”

The center of the interface package is the Embark Gateway, an automotive-grade electronic control unit (ECU). It enables application programming interface (API) to communication between Embark’s technology and any manufacturer’s platform. 

Embark’s vision is for manufacturers to integrate its technology with their truck platforms. The manufacturers then would sell the Level 4 system, which allows driving without human interaction in most instances, with maintenance and warranty support to carriers who buy trucks from multiple manufacturers.

“We’re turning our AV stack into an accessible option that any carrier or fleet will be able to request, similar to a telematics component or any one of the other dozen technologies that OEMs have recently worked to integrate with their core platform,” Moak said.

Long-run lessons

The EUI program should help Embark increase its truck count while growing fleet diversity and speed time to deployment.

“The launch of EUI opens the door to a much larger market opportunity for Embark by making their self-driving technology platform-agnostic,” said Pat Grady, a partner at Sequoia Capital, which led a $30 million capital raise for Embark in 2018. Embark raised a total of $117 million through mid-2019.

Lessons over the long run from the EUI could impact standardized sensor placement, vehicle communication protocols, telematics standardization and power management.

“We’ve seen time and time again how the emergence of an open platform can serve as a galvanizing force in fast-developing markets. And this breakthrough technology from Embark has a chance to do the same for what’s historically been a complex and fragmented industry,” Grady said.

Volvo partners with Aurora for hub-to-hub autonomous trucking

Embark raises $70 million, opens two transfer hubs

Self-driving trucks: A 10 billion-mile proof case for Plus

Click for more FreightWaves articles by Alan Adler.