Embark, a San Mateo, Calif.-based self-driving truck startup, has unveiled its technology for the first time and is ready to take on Uber’s Otto. Embark’s self-driving trucks use neural networks and deep learning to teach themselves how to drive.
Embark’s self-driving trucks also use a combination of radars, cameras and LiDARs. The data the trucks collect is then processed by deep neural networks (DNNs) to allow the truck to learn from its experiences. Once they enter city limits, Embark’s self-driving trucks hand control over the the human driver to drive through the city streets to the final destination.
Embark has been testing its self-driving system on a 2017 Peterbilt truck in Nevada. Tests of self-driving vehicles that weigh more than 10,000 pounds are not permitted in California, a state where Otto is testing its self-driving trucks. Otto has apparently worked around that restriction by having a human driver maintain control.
“Analyzing terabyte upon terabyte of real-world data, Embark’s DNNs have learned how to see through glare, fog and darkness on their own,” says Alex Rodrigues, 21, CEO and co-founder of Embark. “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.”
Rodrigues, who has been building robots since he was 13, says the idea for Embark 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 ‘Drivers Wanted.’ It was so clear there was a shortage of drivers,” Rodrigues says. “The numbers back that up. The American Transportation Research Institute 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. Embark’s goal is to increase productivity per driver and prevent the shortage from becoming a crisis.”
Rodrigues sees Embark’s self-driving trucks as a way to improve the lives of truck drivers, not steal their jobs. Embark’s self-driving trucks are built to handle long stretches of freeway between cities. Embark says a human driver will still touch every load, but the self-driving trucks will able to move more loads per day, handing off hundreds of miles of freeway driving to their robot partners.
“Spending weeks on the highway is tough on you,” says owner-operator Jeff Scorsur. “If I could still get the job done while driving in my own city and sleeping in my own bed, that would make my family very happy.”
Rodrigues started Embark by recruiting talent from SpaceX, StanfordAI, and Audi’s self-driving team. Embark is backed by a multi-million dollar investment led by Maven Ventures. Maven’s previous investment in self-driving technology, Cruise Automation, which sold to GM for $1 billion in 2016.