Fascinating technology

Calgary inventor spearheads billion-dollar self-driving truck technology

Alex Rodrigues has a vision of the future where the idea of ​​people driving their own vehicles is considered crazy

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Alex Rodrigues has a vision of the future where the idea of ​​people driving their own vehicles is considered crazy.

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It’s probably a generation or two away, but the 26-year-old Calgarian is at the forefront of developing technology with his San Francisco trucking company, Embark, which went public in November via a SPAC merger and is now valued at around $4 billion.

“One way to think about it is the discussion I’ll have with my grandkids one day when I’m old,” the company’s co-founder and CEO said. “When you show pictures of 2020, I think one of the first things kids born in 2060 will say is, ‘What’s going on and why are people driving these cars?'”

It’s a vision that’s getting closer every day for the Bishop Carroll High School graduate.

Jill and Claudio Rodrigues’ son got into robotics at the age of 11, a passion that grew under the tutelage of Ron Sveen in John Ware Junior High School’s GATE program.

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He was drawn to the multidisciplinary functionality of being able to create something real and tangible that was cool. Sveen was able to harness that interest and give it the proper discipline and drive.

For Rodrigues, the end goal has become autonomous vehicles.

“As a roboticist, this has always been the most interesting application,” he said. “Today it really stands out by standing at the intersection of what is technically feasible and what is absolutely going to have a gigantic impact on people’s lives.”

In the summer of 2015, while at the University of Waterloo, he and two classmates, Brandon Moak and Michael Skupien, built a self-driving golf cart in his parents’ garage, equipped with a sensor lidar and a GPS system. They completed the project by driving Waterloo President and Vice-Chancellor Feridun Hamdullahpur to campus on one of the first self-guided trips to Canada.

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Alex Rodrigues, left, with the self-driving golf cart he built with Brandon Moak and Michael Skupien.
Alex Rodrigues, left, with the self-driving golf cart he built with Brandon Moak and Michael Skupien. Courtesy photo Embark

The golf cart was their ticket to Silicon Valley’s prestigious Y Combinator program in 2016, and they did what any budding entrepreneur would do, they dropped out of school and headed west.

The trio launched Embark Trucks Inc. later that year – Skupien retired in 2017 – and it has since grown into a 200-employee company with self-driving trucks on the road with nearly limitless potential for growth in an industry of 700 billion dollars.

When the company started, it was all about self-driving passenger cars. Google got its boost with predictions of millions of self-driving vehicles becoming the norm in the near future. It didn’t quite work.

Rodrigues said Embark was better positioned to achieve its goals because of its background in robotics.

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“I think in the beginning you had a lot of academics, a lot of software engineers who maybe didn’t have the experience to put this into a fully functional system,” he said. “But what’s really cool about where the industry is right now is that we’ve gone from the initial peak of the hype cycle to where we’re actually finding useful apps.”

In 2018, Embark became the first company to take an autonomous truck from coast to coast in a single trip, with a driver behind the wheel as backup.

Alex Rodrigues, CEO of Embark Trucks, representing Bishop Carol High School in a robotics competition at age 16.
Alex Rodrigues, CEO of Embark Trucks, representing Bishop Carol High School in a robotics competition at age 16. Courtesy photo Embark

Today they have a fleet of trucks and one day they may not need a driver behind the wheel.

For many, it may seem like a leap of faith that a truck can get from point A to point B on its own, but Rodrigues is already proving it’s possible.

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“We’ve done over a million miles on the fleet and we’ve never been in a DOT incident or accident,” Rodrigues said. “It’s the best safety record in the self-driving truck industry and something that I think speaks very well to the capability of the technology and the team of safety drivers in operation that we have.”

They have partnerships with a number of major trucking companies including Night Swift, DHL, Werner Enterprises, Bison Transport and others.

Safety is Rodrigues’ biggest motivation. According to the Association for Safe International Road Travel, car accidents are the leading cause of death in the United States among people aged 1 to 54, with about 38,000 per year, while 4.4 million are seriously injured. and require medical attention. He believes self-driving or self-driving vehicles are the solution – eliminate human error.

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He also points out two other big advantages of the technology.

From an environmental perspective, early studies show that driverless trucks are around 10% more fuel efficient than a human-driven platform due to driving practices. Meanwhile, it will also reduce idling, heating and idling.

Meanwhile, from an economic perspective, it creates more resilient supply chains by creating a cheaper and more efficient means of transport that will impact the cost of everything from groceries to retail. , including construction and project management.

Alex Rodrigues, CEO of Embark Trucks.
Alex Rodrigues, CEO of Embark Trucks. Courtesy photo Embark

“Seventy percent of the goods in the United States are transported by truck,” Rodrigues said. “And suddenly, as we struggle to find enough truckers to empty the Port of Los Angeles, it becomes really, really clear how that’s impacting inflation and how that’s impacting the whole country. “

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Embark is a software-to-service company and its technology is adaptable to most trucks on the road.

Embark is not alone in its efforts.

The technology is also being used in oil sands projects in some of the giant heavy trucks. Meanwhile, there are other self-driving trucking startups that are in direct competition with Embark.

Embark is now focused on expanding short to long haul trucking, one region at a time in the United States. It plans to launch in the US Sunbelt in 2024, then in the northern states in 2026.

Canada is on the radar, but there are a host of different challenges – regulatory and weather-related – ahead of them. He even helped draft Ontario legislation allowing self-driving cars under strict conditions in 2019.

While most of these companies are headquartered in regions where snow is more myth than reality, there are Canadians at the helm and on the staff of many of them. This gives them additional practical insight into some of the challenges that need to be addressed as technology develops.

“It’s definitely something we’re a bit proud of,” he said. “Canada doesn’t necessarily have the best roads to test driverless systems, given all the snow, but it does have a really great engineering program and engineering talent.”

[email protected]

Twitter: @JoshAldrich03

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