Jun 2, 2022 - Technology

Self-driving EV heavy trucks are coming to a work site near you

Image of an autonomous Caterpillar 725 work truck.

A Caterpillar 725 retrofitted with SafeAI's autonomous hardware and software. Photo courtesy of SafeAI

Autonomy startup SafeAI is partnering with German industrial titan Siemens to create electric, autonomous heavy trucks for Japanese construction giant Obayashi, Axios is first to report.

Why it matters: Construction and mining companies are under pressure to reduce their carbon footprint, improve safety and lower costs.

  • By electrifying and automating their fleets, they're leading an off-road transportation revolution that's just as important as the transformation of passenger cars.

Details: An Obayashi-owned, 45-ton Caterpillar 725 articulated dump truck will be converted into the world's first electric and autonomous heavy truck, SafeAI CEO Bibhrajit Halder tells Axios.

  • The two companies will then work with another partner, AVIA Engineering, to convert the rest of Obayashi's 300-plus trucks over the next three years.
  • Thanks to lower operating and maintenance costs, the retrofitted vehicles will cost 15%-30% less to operate over their lifetimes.

Context: SafeAI and Obayashi have been partnering on autonomous trucks since October 2020.

  • Now Siemens is adding its electrification expertise, including an autonomous overhead charging system and digital technology to help analyze safety and performance data.  

The big picture: Retrofitting existing trucks is seen as a way to fast-track the adoption of sustainable technologies in heavy industries.

  • Trucks like these are a big investment for industrial companies, and they work them hard for a decade or two. Only about 10% of the world's currently operating heavy trucks are new.
  • With 500 autonomous trucks in operation globally, Caterpillar already has the world's largest fleet of self-driving mining trucks.
  • Meanwhile, engine manufacturers like Cummins are developing cleaner alternative powertrains for off-highway equipment.

What they're saying: "You're not going to talk to any construction or mining company that doesn’t have net-zero as part of their 5- to 10-year strategy," SafeAI's Halder tells Axios.

  • "Autonomy and electrification literally go hand in hand, like bread and butter," he added. (Autonomy, which requires lots of computing power, is energy intensive.)
  • Retrofitting heavy vehicles for autonomy and zero-emissions is "an innovative yet cost-effective solution that will fast-track adoption of sustainable technologies," Zubin Sarkar, head of strategy, business development and marketing at Siemens Commercial Vehicles, said in a statement.
  • Between new sales and retrofits — and helped by government subsidies — more than 4 million zero-emissions heavy vehicles could be deployed worldwide by 2030, the companies say.

The bottom line: The future of transportation is autonomous and electric — not just on highways or in cities, but at off-road work sites, too.

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