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Drivers needed (sort of): Einride wants remote pilots for its driverless pods

Einride Self-Driving Transport Vehicle

“Being a truck driver is one of the most hazardous jobs you can have,” Robert Falck, the chief executive of Einride, a Swedish autonomous vehicle startup, told Digital Trends.

This is, as it turns out, not wrong. Despite the fact that truck drivers are traveling in what, at least by comparison with ordinary cars, amounts to an armored vehicle, injuries are commonplace. There are transportation accidents, due to the fact that truck drivers spend significantly longer on the road than most of us, often involving night driving or driving in inclement weather or on icy roads. There are ergonomic injuries caused by sitting in the same uncomfortable position for long periods of time. There are physical problems caused by the constant vibration of the engine which may impair musculoskeletal functions and contribute to fatigue. There is an increased risk of falls due to the fact that you’re sitting significantly higher up than in a regular car. And that’s just scratching the surface.

Things haven’t necessarily been getting any better either. Deaths from large truck collisions reached their highest level in 29 years in 2017, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data.

The future of autonomous and all-electric transportation is here.

Falck’s assertion isn’t especially surprising. People who work for companies promising to automate industries previously carried out by humans often make the argument about how dangerous a job is as a reason to justify automation. Robots, experts tell us, will replace the dull jobs, the dirty jobs, and the dangerous jobs. Humans need not apply. Quite literally, in fact, since many of these jobs will soon be carried out by robots which do the work more cheaply and, frankly, without those irritating complaints about trifling matters like wage increases or vacation time. Falck’s argument follows in a long line of techno-replacement facilitators who are comfortable taking a moral stance on automation since, well, who wants a dull, dirty or dangerous job?

Einride Self-Driving Transport Vehicle

Einride has developed a new type of self-driving, all-electric freight vehicle which, while not exactly a truck, could replace trucks as we know them. It’s more like a six-wheeled transport pod; each one approximately 23 feet in length, capable of carrying 15 standard pallets, and traveling 124 miles on a single charge. There’s no room inside for a human driver. The company has picked up major clients including Coca-Cola European Partners, the official authorized bottler, distributor, sales and marketing company for Coca-Cola branded products in Sweden. Recently, it raised an extra $25 million in funding to help speed up its expansion in the United States.

“We believe that the first major market for autonomous is going to be for the transport of goods,” Falck said. “A lot of people love driving their cars, so I think it makes much more sense to focus on autonomous driving for the transportation of goods.”

A new class of job

Einride Self-Driving Transport Vehicle

But Robert Falck isn’t taking humans out of the loop with his autonomous vehicles. Instead, he is excited because he claims Einride is helping to carve out a whole new class of jobs for truck drivers: One that will offer increased remuneration but without the risk or the requirement that they spend long periods of time isolated on the road, away from friends and family. In late February, the company announced that it is hiring its first autonomous and remote truck operator in the freight mobility space. The first, potentially, of many.

“We want to help trigger a real change in the way that a person operating a transport system does [their] job,” Falck said. “Instead of sitting in the truck itself driving it, they will instead be able to remotely monitor and control the vehicle.”

Einride Self-Driving Transport Vehicle

In this new role, truck drivers will head to an operations center, rather than the open road, at the start of each day. They’ll grab a coffee, then sit down at a bank of computers. Only this wouldn’t be a bank of computers like the one in your office. Falck opined that “I wouldn’t say it’s a gaming setup,” although that’s an easy way to understand the basics of it. Like one of those gaming rigs or arcade machines that gives people a recreated cabin interior (or an approximation of it) with screens in place of a windshield, this will be as close to the experience of driving a truck as you can get without actually driving a truck.

“We kept the steering wheel,” Falck said. “It’s still a very good way of interacting with the steering. It’s literally the same setup [you would normally find in a truck].”

Einride Self-Driving Transport Vehicle

Each driver will be responsible for overseeing a fleet of around 10 vehicles. Although some companies have explored autonomous convoy systems, Einride is not one of them. All of these vehicles will be independent of each other, meaning that the remote operator will need to keep his or her eyes on multiple vehicles.

“At the end of the day, they can sign off, go home, and have dinner with their family,” Falck said.

Who drives the driverless?

You might ask why an autonomous driving startup has the need for human drivers. Isn’t the point of a driverless truck that, well, it is driverless? The answer to that question is, of course, “yes.” But it’s also not quite as simple as all that. “In contrary to the reports about completely autonomous systems, we still have a lot of limits in order to be able to [reach that point],” Falck said.

The idea of still having a human in the proverbial, if not literal, driver’s seat is twofold. The first is for the same reason that autonomous vehicles, of the kind being driven thousands of miles by companies like Google and Apple, have safety drivers. In the event that something goes wrong, that some complex event happens which the onboard A.I. is not able to deal with effectively, a human can step in and take over the driving via remote control. In Einride’s hybrid system, humans will also take over when the trucks exit highways onto main city roads where they will be remotely controlled.

There is another element, too. Falck splits driving into three different levels: Strategic, tactical and operational. “The humans will take the strategic decisions, while the system will take the tactical and operational [ones],” he explained. “But occasionally humans will be able to step in to control everything, although the default is that humans will just make the strategic decisions.”

Einride Self-Driving Transport Vehicle

The tactical and operational side of things deal with the immediate reactive parts of driving; things like deciding when to switch lanes and then physically carrying out the maneuver. The strategic side refers to the organizational and logistics sides of trucking. These are the higher-level hows, whys, and whens of freighting.

“We’re looking for people with exceptional operational ability,” Falck said. Are there ways to prepare? “A good way to train is to play truck simulators,” he noted.

The creative destruction of industries

What is yet to be seen is how many jobs this will help to create. After all, no-one disputes that new jobs will be created through the creative destruction of new technologies. The question, rather, is whether there will be enough jobs as space industry lawyers, TikTok influencers and self-driving car drivers to offset the number of jobs that can be automated out of existence? The fact that one former truck driver can earn better pay for supervising 10 previously human-driven trucks suggests that, as with many of the winner-takes-all economies new technologies have made possible, this isn’t going to be a one-for-one replacement. At least initially, Einride will initially be hiring two such drivers: one for Sweden and, later in the year, one for the U.S.

Driving an Einride pod in Sweden from MWC 19 in Barcelona

But when it comes to freight transportation, Falck also says that the industry is currently failing to provide enough people to fill the positions that are open. “We have a rapidly growing logistics market,” he said. “There’s a global shortage of truck drivers. There’s a shortage of hundreds of thousands of truck drivers in the U.S., for instance.”

According to the American Trucking Association, by the end of 2017, the U.S. needed 51,000 more truck drivers than were currently working. Those numbers are expected to keep rising as millennials appear uninterested in joining this particular labor force.

Einride, like the makers of burger-flipping robots Miso Robotics, is therefore not so much replacing people as making up for a shortage in the workforce. The lack of drivers is, he said, “one of the big pain points we see in the industry.”

Changing the environment

Robert Falck believes that Einride’s electric pods can have a positive environmental impact. Its pods promise to reduce CO2 emissions by 90% compared to a normal truck of comparable size. It will also reduce fuel costs by 70%. However, his vision of a new category of driver jobs also suggests the future of that particular job category could be more sustainable for those who are working in it, too.

“It’s the same thing you’ve seen in factories,” he said. “From fully manual assembly, they now use a lot of robotic assembly. There are still a lot of people working in productive positions in factories, [though]. But the jobs have changed — and in many cases for the better.”

Einride’s new remote driver hires will work with the company’s technology team to provide feedback. Together, Einride’s says, they will “help shape the working environment of tomorrow’s truckers.” And that, it is confident, is a very good thing indeed.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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