Einride, the Swedish startup that wants to electrify the autonomous freight industry, will begin operating its purpose-built, self-driving pods on public roads in the U.S. this year as part of an existing partnership with General Electric Appliances (GEA).
Einride's pods are built without a front cabin for a human safety operator, which the company says required approval from the National Highway Traffic Safety Association (NHTSA) in order to operate on public roads.
"Other companies are retrofitting existing trucks to become autonomous, but we are doing the opposite," Robert Falck, CEO and founder at Einride, told TechCrunch. "We are building a brand new way to do autonomous shipping from the ground up which results in this new type of vehicle design and functionality."
While there are a number of autonomous trucking companies running freight in the U.S. today, it's true that all of them are currently based on existing trucks, and almost none of them are electric.
Einride says this milestone marks the first time a purpose-built autonomous electric truck has received permission to operate on public roads, however, it is reminiscent of autonomous vehicle company Nuro's 2020 request for a temporary exemption from certain low-speed vehicle standard requirements. Nuro's vehicles, which deliver food and groceries using public roads, are also built without space for a driver or passengers. The company therefore needed NHTSA approval to use a new type of vehicle that isn't built with certain human-centered features, like mirrors or a windshield. Presumably, Einride's approval is similar in nature, but the company would not confirm with TechCrunch. NHTSA also was unable to confirm this to TechCrunch, despite multiple attempts to reach out.
Einride did say that the approval is conditional upon the company adhering to a set location and timing — Einride's pod will be operating on a mixed traffic, mile-long stretch of road between a GEA factory and a warehouse in Selmer, Tennessee beginning in the third quarter of 2022. Einride has been piloting its pods with GEA since November 2021 at the company's fenced warehouse in Louisville, during which time Einride tested the metal of its technology in a closed facility with predetermined routes and a controlled environment.
"This new pilot will take us out onto public roads for the first time in the U.S., allowing short shipments on routes that utilize public roads as well as fenced areas," said Falck, noting that the pod will operate between a fenced warehouse and public roads. "What we’re building with these various pilots is a clear business case of how our Einride Pods can support commercialization for customers, in a variety of environments."
During the initial two-week pilot, the pod will carry cargo and coordinate with teams at the warehouses for loading and unloading. A remote pod operator, which Einride says is a key to helping the company's business model become scalable in the future, will monitor operations and assist or guide when needed during critical, low-speed operations, according to the company. For example, the remote operator might assist the vehicle in backing up to a dock or waiting for workers to unload the pod. Einride says the vehicle can operate autonomously in most other situations.
It's not clear how many runs the pod will do each day, but per the limits of its approval with NHTSA, Einride's pod will only operate during daylight hours on weekdays, and it will avoid adverse weather and road conditions like heavy rain, snow, fog, hail or temperatures below zero degrees Fahrenheit. The pod has the ability, however, to operate in such conditions due to lidar and cameras, the company said.
Einride is also growing its footprint in the U.S. through its partnership with oat-based milk company Oatly. The two expanded their partnership earlier this month to electrify Oatly's North American fleet with five of Einride's connected electric Class 8 trucks. In February, Einride reportedly ordered 200 electric trucks from BYD to be used in the U.S.