While self-driving trucks and self-driving cars make use of much of the same technology to power their AI systems, it would be a mistake to think the expected roll out date of both developments to would be identical. The sheer weight of semi trucks creates unique technological challenges compared to self-driving cars. The substantial weight of trucks means the time it takes to stop a them is much longer than cars, and trucks have less ability to swerve to avoid an accident. At the same, the way the way trucks are deployed creates possible uses of autonomy which would be economically viable for commercial trucks but not commercial cars. For example, some trucks will spend their entire lifecycle operating on only a limited piece of private property, such as a mine, which simplifies the legal and technical issues with creating an autonomous system.
We'd all be whizzing round in automated taxis by now if Elon Musk had been right. Instead, fully self-driving cars are struggling to get away from the starting grid and some investors are betting that driverless trucks will reach the checkered flag first. Only a year ago, startups developing self-driving taxis were pulling in eight times more funding than firms working on autonomous trucks, buses and logistics vehicles, but the gap has narrowed dramatically in 2021. With fewer regulatory and technological hurdles, trucks operating on major highways, fixed delivery routes or in environments far from cyclists and pedestrians such as mines and ports are now being seen as a faster way to generate returns. In the year through Dec. 6, total investment activity for self-driving logistics vehicles leapt fivefold to $6.5 billion from $1.3 billion in the same period in 2020, according to startup data platform PitchBook.
Progress on self-driving technology has been slower than many people expected just a few years ago. Google's Waymo was aiming to launch a fully driverless taxi service by the end of 2018 but missed its deadline. GM's Cruise abandoned plans to launch a commercial service in 2019. Tesla has repeatedly fallen short of Elon Musk's optimistic timelines for delivering fully self-driving technology. They have plenty of cash and can keep working on the problem as long as they need to. But it is a big challenge for some of their competitors: independent self-driving startups that rely on venture capital to stay afloat.
The race to create self-driving trucks just got a little less crowded. That's because Uber announced Monday that the ride-hailing giant is shuttering its self-driving truck program, a division that made history in 2016 by completing the world's first autonomous truck delivery -- 50,000 cans of Budweiser. That division -- a part of Uber's Advanced Technologies Group -- had other successes as well, including delivering freight on highways in Arizona using automated Volvo big rigs. The robot-driven Volvo trucks were rolled out in November and included a human backup driver, the company said. The company did not have a formal partnership with Volvo but, instead, retrofitted Volvo trucks with its technology.
In the U.S. alone, revenues from the trucking industry rose to $796.7 billion in 2018, up from $700.1 billion the previous year, according to the American Trucking Associations. Trucks moved more than 70% of the country's freight. A major factor for businesses in choosing self-driving trucks is greater fuel efficiency, which cuts fuel costs by at least 15%, according to Plus.ai. "There's no question that autonomous trucks will be ready before autonomous cars," Plus.ai COO and co-founder Shawn Kerrigan said in a statement to CNBC.