The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare many defects in our society, but chief among them may be the fragility of our supply chains. From toilet paper to bicycles to lumber, the virus has shown that even relatively minor disruptions to the chain can cause long-term shortages of important goods.
In Los Angeles, a San Francisco-based autonomous trucking company is carrying out a new pilot program with computer hardware giant HP Inc. In the next couple of years, the startup wants to reduce emissions and transit times in HP's supply chains. And if it's successful, expand the model to other companies.
Founded in 2016, Embark has been focused on creating fully autonomous trucks to ferry goods around the United States. As part of the partnership with HP, the company has detailed plans for a pilot program that would use a mixture of electric vehicles and fully autonomous trucks to ferry HP's hardware around Los Angeles and beyond.
The shipping strategy uses a fleet of human-driven electric trucks, specifically the BYD 8TT, to make first and last mile trips: Goods move from an HP facility to a transfer point on a human-piloted electric vehicle. Then they're moved onto a non-electric autonomous truck for the middle leg of the journey. Finally, they're moved back onto another electric truck for delivery.
The program's initiation comes just a few months after Embark announced a plan to go public via a $5.2 billion SPAC deal. They join competitors TuSimple and Plus in the publicly traded autonomous trucking world. The landscape is heating up and investors are taking notice, but the markets appear to harbor some uncertainty in terms of whether fully autonomous driving is possible, and if so, on what timescales.
TuSimple's stock price has ping-ponged between approximately $70 and $30 over the past 3 months reflecting the incredible opportunity and challenge that autonomous driving represents
Electric on the ends, autonomous in the middle.
"All of these partnerships that advance transportation options and transportation possibilities are certainly welcome. All of this is motherhood and apple pie," said Ram Pendyala, a transportation systems expert at Arizona State University. "The question is what is real and what is truly going to make a tangible and noticeable difference."
The electric vehicle component of the pilot, Penyala said, is a no-brainer. Switching to electric trucks for short-range trips is an easy and effective way to significantly reduce emissions. Amazon is reportedly on the way to amassing a fleet of 100,000 electric delivery vans with the same intention. Sam Abidi, head of business development at Embark, said their preliminary research suggests that "the use of autonomous and electric trucks can remove up to 50,000 tons of CO2 from HP's supply chain over 10 years."
Embark is hoping to have fully autonomous trucks on the road in a pilot program as early as 2023, with commercial operations in the following year.
Pendyala said that's a very optimistic timeline, but not uncommon for the burgeoning industry. His skepticism is well-supported by the history of autonomous vehicles: It seems like self-driving cars have been "about three years away" for 15 years now. Google's self-driving experiment began back in 2009 (and has now morphed into Waymo, an Alphabet subsidiary) but has yet to produce a commercially available autonomous vehicle.
Tesla's Elon Musk famously claimed that the car manufacturer's autopilot software was "basically a solved problem" back in 2016, and, even as recently as January, suggested a fully autonomous vehicle would be possible by year's end—a statement that has already been walked back.
By comparison, Embark was only just founded in 2016, but what may give the 200-person company an advantage is their singular focus on shipping. If their autonomous trucks only have to navigate highways and loading docks because human-driven EVs are doing the first and last mile work, the range of scenarios they might encounter is drastically reduced.
This model is, of course, dependent on regulators and drivers accepting the idea of driving on highways alongside an 80,000 pound vehicle with no human on board.
"I'm fairly certain we'll see some quantum leaps in the development of this technology very soon. These partnerships are going to be what advances that," Pendyala said. "For now, the human driver and the human delivery people are just inevitable. Don't hold your breath for full autonomy. That is still far out on the horizon."
'Like Roomba With a Scissor Lift and a Suction Cup': InVia's Robot Aims to Change How Warehousing Is Done
Amazon and other industry giants have long used robots to replace warehouse workers and ship off more packages per day.
Starting at $4,000 a month, inVia Robotics' Picker robot and management software is still more expensive than a minimum wage worker, but the Westlake Village-based startup and Rufus Labs think it will help smaller manufacturers keep up.
As a swell in ecommerce fuels demand at warehouse distribution centers, companies like San Jose-based Fetch Robotics is just one of a growing number of companies selling robotic subscription services in a tight labor market.
They pitch the technology as an easy answer to problems with warehouse efficiency, labor shortages and worker safety, and by lowering the cost of robots and AI software, which can run into six figures, inVia and Rufus hope to bring in smaller clients.
Courtesy inVia Robotics
The two L.A. tech startups said their goal isn't to replace human workers, but to usher in a new work environment — one where robots are doing the heavy lifting.
"It's important for them to work together," said Gabe Grifoni, the CEO and co-founder of Rufus Labs. "There's a lot that has to be worked on to coordinate that dance."
The autonomous robots are designed to retrieve items from warehouse shelves and bring them to workers who scan each product using Rufus' wearable computers and tablets.
The red and black machine is quiet, expands to about eight feet and can move much quicker than a person.
"They basically look like a Roomba with a scissor lift and a suction cup," said Lior Elzary, chief executive of inVia Robotics.
How many times an employee scans every hour, the routes they walk around the center — it's all measured via the Android devices strapped to a worker's arm.
And those metrics can be displayed on big screens for employers and their bosses to track.
"I would say that we do it without a lot of the human capital costs that may be associated with how Amazon does things," Gifroni said. "I don't know any of our customers who penalize workers for certain metrics."
But the robots aren't likely to solve all warehousing's problems. Even Amazon, with its hundreds of thousands of robots, still has much higher injury rates than other warehouse facilities.
The retail giant, which owns its own robotic company, introduced warehouse robotics in its fulfillment centers years ago. Customers today can place an order one day and expect the package to arrive the next thanks to the speed products move through massive warehouses.
Courtesy inVia Robotics
It can be tricky for new entrants to integrate them into workplaces, said Lynn Wu, a professor at the Wharton School specializing in the way new technologies change employment and management practices.
And robots can only replace so much human work.
"Even in the simple tasks of moving products from shelf A to Shelf B, then bringing them to a box, a human has to be involved," she said.
This means that jobs aren't necessarily vanishing. And workers might avoid certain injuries that come with tracking down and carrying items around the center.
But, Wu said, safety will remain a concern.
"There will be a new type of safety issue," she said. "It could be repairing a robot or repetitive injuries associated with putting so many things in a box. You may have a wrist injury now that you're packing at a much higher speed than you used to before."
Former Cisco executive Shaun Cooley's two-year-old Los Angeles startup is creating a platform to make buildings smarter.
Mapped, which just raised $6.5 million led by Allegion Ventures and MetaProp, helps commercial real estate companies operate their buildings remotely.
So far, it has about a dozen commercial customers that have anywhere from 100 to 1,000 buildings where HVAC, elevators and other systems can be controlled from a central brain.
Although their current customers are all commercial real estate, Cooley hopes to expand that to refineries, energy production facilities, manufacturing floors and retail spaces.
Mapped's software represents physical buildings in standardized, open-source digital database graphs and automates everything from heating and air to lighting, elevators and even conveyor belts — adjusting them based on the temperature outside or time of day, all without the need for human intervention.
Cooley came up with the idea after years as Cisco's CTO and vice president of IOT and industries, where he saw his customers struggle with extracting data from their systems and making it usable.
"Just because you digitize, or you IoT enable one factory, doesn't mean you can take that digitization and move it to the factory across the street," said Cooley. "They have different systems, installed in a different time period, by a different system integrator."
For example, a decades old building might have an HVAC, lighting, security, elevators, irrigation system, gas metering and other systems feeding into a central hub. For owners of multiple building, the interfaces that those systems operate on are often different. Mapped offers a platform for developers to standardize those interfaces.
Using APIs, Mapped's software constantly scans the environment, communicates with devices in their native protocols, and then brings data back to its central platform. Thus, software developers can write applications one time and instantly deploy them across all of a company's buildings.
Cooley said his product is different than what's offered by Oracle and Microsoft because its designed to be an all-in-one automated platform, making it much faster than his competitors.
In March 2020, Mapped raised $3 million in its first seed round, bringing today's total to $9.5 million.
The latest round was co-led by Legion Ventures and MetaProp, Singtel joined the round and Greycroft and Animo participated.