Heavy transport and freight have been major contributors to California’s air pollution, spurring startups like Freightera to intervene to make freight less polluting and more efficient. Embark, a startup based in San Francisco, launched a test drive on February 6 for its autonomous truck “Big Blue,” which traveled 2,400 miles (3,862 kilometers) from Los Angeles, California, to Jacksonville, Florida, to become the first autonomous vehicle to travel from coast to coast.

Driver in Embark's autonomous truck dubbed Big Blue ready to take over.

Driver in Embark’s autonomous truck dubbed Big Blue ready to take over. Courtesy of Embark

Unlike other manufacturers of autonomous vehicles, Embark uses machine-learning software and data from sensors to map its surroundings in real-time and avoid obstacles. Other AVs, such as Alphabet’s Waymo and General Motors’ Cruise, record their routes, map any obstacles ahead of the trip, and use data from the sensors to augment their maps. During the test drive, Big Blue operated with professional safety drivers inside that were ready to take over the wheel in case of a glitch in the sensors. The “sensor suite” in Embark’s Big Blue is equipped with five cameras, three long-range radars, and at least two “lidars” or light detection and ranging sensors.

On the long run, Embark aims to roll out 40 autonomous trucks like Big Blue, in addition to the five already rolled out, that can drive independently on freeways, but may require a human driver to get on and off exits, and to navigate around cities or small towns. Co-founder and CEO Alex Rodrigues explains that this concept would preserve drivers’ jobs but cover long routes and make more deliveries in less time.

In May 2017, a Norwegian chemicals’ group Yara unveiled its autonomous ship Yara Bireklandwhich is slated to begin operations in the second half of 2018. Yara Birekland will take off autonomously, fuelled by an electric battery and shipping products from Yara’s Porsgrunn production plant to Brevik and Larvik in Norway as a start. The autonomous ship promises to reduce nitrogen oxide and carbon dioxide emissions and improve road safety by replacing up to 40,000 truck journeys in populated urban areas. Yara Birkeland will first operate as a manned vessel, moving to remote operation in 2019. It is expected to be fully autonomous starting 2020.

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