Within weeks driverless electric freight transport trucks may be traveling on public roads in western Tennessee—the first time such a vehicle has been granted permission to do so in the U.S. This latest development in the logistics industry comes after Swedish freight technology company Einride was granted a permit by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for a public road pilot project.
The Einride autonomous electric transport (AET) called a Pod, operates without a driver and does not even have a space for one. It is monitored by a specially-trained remote driver who can take control if necessary.
The public road pilot is being run in conjunction with Einride client GE Appliances, a Haier company. Pods will operate on public roads in mixed traffic near GE Appliances’s Tennessee plant east of Memphis, performing a number of tasks including movement of goods and coordinating with teams at various warehouses for loading and unloading.
“We are creating a more sustainable and efficient supply chain through increased electrification and automation in our manufacturing and distribution operations,” said Bill Good, Vice President of Supply Chain for GE Appliances. “We’ve appreciated working with Einride in demonstrating how their Pod technology can help us accelerate achievement of that goal.”
Einride founder and CEO Robert Falck tells Forbes.com the Pod’s autonomous technology still is not suitable for complex, urban driving in environments with lots of people and traffic, but it’s just right for suiting the needs of the growing logistics industry.
“The uniqueness of what we do is you have a strong business case for application of both autonomous and electric and that’s what’s driving it,” said Falck in an interview. “The real benefits for our clients is it’s cost competitive and for truck drivers it’s better pay and much safer work and on top of that we have the environment of the benefits of electric.”
Indeed, one of Einride’s core values is reducing harmful emissions by promoting the use of its electric trucks while looking at autonomy as simply a better way to do business.
“It’s how the future of transport will look like,” declared Falck. “We’re not going electric because of electric, we’re going electric because it’s the best business case. We’re going autonomous because it’s enabling a new way of thinking about transport. We bring it all together in one solution.”
Einride’s public road pilot is set to begin in the third quarter of this year and follows a similar project in Europe in 2019— the first time an autonomous, electric freight vehicle was deployed on a public road, according to the company.
Founded in 2016, Einride has been on a fast track to expansion. Last November the company opened operations in the U.S., bringing with it Pods specially built for use in this country to meet government and safety standards. A flatbed version will be added to the lineup to handle cargo containers.
Along with GE Appliances, Einride has landed technical partners such as Ericsson and Siemens as well as customers Oatly, Bridgestone.
Einride’s expansion also included creating the unique position of Remote Pod Operator who monitors the Pod while it’s in use via a console and can intervene if necessary. Falck said actual truck drivers are welcome to apply and some have already been hired, but it’s not the same as sitting behind the wheel of a big rig.
“It’s more complex than being a trucker,” said Falck. “It’s more like being an airplane pilot than a traditional trucker.”
Indeed, Falck says the company would never consider operating its autonomous Pods without “a human in the loop.”
As he thinks about running Pods on public roads, Falck becomes reflective about the historical influence of the logistics industry from the boat to the wheel to trains and planes providing the transport ranging from the materials that went into the Egyptian pyramids to facilitating the Industrial Revolution and beyond.
Now Falck is looking at his company’s latest accomplishment as another page in history the logistics industry will have a hand in writing.
“Logistics creates cities, creates hubs, creates our history. If you look at cost competitiveness, the cheapest way to transport in the next 50 years, it will be autonomous and electric transport vehicles. What we have here is literally technology that will re-write the map and re-write how we see history and how we see transport,” said Falck. “The revolution is happening.”