Ann Arbor-based startup FreightMiner
is developing an autonomous trucking software prototype, which it demonstrated in a simulator at last week's North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
FreightMiner's technology would allow trucking companies to operate their vehicles entirely without drivers. According to a recent blog post
by Ann Arbor SPARK, unmanned driving technology currently relies on one of two methods: robot driving and teleoperations.
Robot driving, which is still being tested, involves no human interference whatsoever. For precisely that reason, safety is a major concern when humans are not present to prevent accidents. Teleoperations, on the other hand, involve technology that can be controlled remotely by a human.
FreightMiner founder and CEO Al Houry says his company's innovation is to take a hybrid approach, where "trucks can be remotely operated at the beginning and the end of the drive portions, while being autonomously driven over the long freeway stretch." That approach would allow a human driver (at a distance) to handle more complicated portions of the drive, such as those involving traffic lights and pedestrians.
Houry's team is working to develop a kit that would convert existing manually driven trucks into autonomous vehicles. That conversion should be so easy, he says, that "we don't even void their manufacturer's warranty."
According to Houry, the trucking industry is currently facing two major challenges: a labor shortage, and the federal regulation that limits the number of hours that drivers may be on the road (known as the "Hours of Service" regulation).
Houry says his technology will solve both problems.
Without a driver sitting in the cab of the truck, trucking companies would no longer be subject to the Hours of Service regulation. And with human drivers only needed for the short beginning and end portions of a trip, fewer drivers would be needed overall.
While most autonomous driving companies rely on cameras to enable their vehicles to "see," Houry is quick to point out that FreightMiner does not.
"[Cameras] are not as good as our human eyes, [and] if we're developing a safety critical technology that needs to be placed on public roads, it has to be at least as good as a human driver, if not better," he says.
Instead, FreightMiner has developed a system of interlinking sensors.
"We're relying on far superior sensors like LiDARs and radars and thermal cameras," Houry says, which will allow trucks to drive autonomously through inclement weather conditions.
Houry says FreightMiner is Michigan-based for "a very specific reason."
"We are building this technology to solve the problem where it exists," he says. " … So we want to develop this technology to handle roads that are covered with snow. We want to be able to drive through dense fog and severe heavy rainfall and snowfall, and even GPS-signal loss environments."
Natalia Holtzman is a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor. Her work has appeared in publications such as the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Hub, The Millions, and others.
Photo courtesy of FreightMiner.
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