It seems that the self-driving, electric car, only a sci-fi dream not that long ago, will take over sooner than anyone imagined.
But freight hauling presents bigger challenges, raising the question of whether similar advances can be achieved in the trucking sector. In the first place, moving heavy vehicles full of goods uses a lot of energy. Adele Peters, at Fast Company, notes that
"In the U.S., even though heavy-duty trucks make up only about 7% of road traffic, they represent 25% of total fuel use, and emit around half a billion metric tons of carbon dioxide a year."
The Uber spin-off OTTO has already started to experiment with self-driving trucks, which could solve problems like the shortage of people willing to work as long-haul drivers. But that doesn't do much for the environment. Leaving a truck standing at the side of the road for hours during recharging remains the largest obstacle to using electric motors instead of fossil fuels for these applications.
Safety presents a second huge obstacle. And we mean "huge." The size and weight of trucks makes accident avoidance even more critical - putting concerns about self-driving safety on overdrive.
Einride, a company based in Gothenburg (Göteborg), Sweden, has a vision that lowers these hurdles slowing the adoption of both alternative energy and self-driving technologies in hauling. The key change? Take the driver out of the vehicle with a hybrid of self-driving and remote control.
Einride plans to have their driverless (windowless, even) T-pods plying the route between Gothenburg and Helsingborg by 2020. The 7-meter (23- feet) long vehicle can carry 15 standard pallets and up to 20 tons. The trucks roll through their highway distances in fully automated mode. But when they near population centers, the T-pods can be put under remote control, with a human managing the navigation.
With no paid personnel on board to be bored and useless during long charging cycles, electric motors begin to make more sense. The T-pods can travel 200 km (124 miles) on a single charge, and stops at charging stations add little to the overall costs of haulage compared to traditional rigs that have down-time during driver resting periods. Remote drivers can simply switch their attention to a different vehicle when one T-pod stops for recharging. Which is a good thing, because even the run up and down the Swedish coastline between Gothenburg and Helsingborg may be a bit out of range without a top-up along the way.
In case this leaves any doubt Einride's futuristic vision, the company has Swedish astronaut Christer Fuglesang pitching its launch. Einride is largely self-funded with some private financing. The company already has contracts for 60% of the planned capacity on 200 T-pods (2,000,000 pallets per year).
Like Elon Musk's Tesla, Einride seems less about making a product and more about changing the way we live and think. CEO Robert Falck cut his teeth at Volvo but also has a history of serial entrepreneurship, including co-founding The Great Wild, under the motto "hunters saving the wildlife." Falck sums up the aim of his newest pursuit:
"Life is about choices and Einride is about making a choice for a better transport system for our children. A sustainable transport system for tomorrow."