The clamour  of developers  and start-ups  rushing to embrace the future  tech of autonomous truck operation has  withered somewhat over the past year  or so as several start-ups and tech companies shut down or shifted their focus away from self driving trucks.

However many of the companies still in the autonomous realm remain, however are getting close to some ‘driver-out milestones’ and are continuing to lay the foundation for large-scale industry adoption in the future.

Although more prominent companies such as Waymo, TuSimple, Embark and Locomation are no longer actively developing self-driving trucks , others in North America still envisage a clear path to commercial deployment of autonomous trucks.

One company, Aurora has described 2024 as a “pivotal year” for the company.

Aurora co-founder and CEO Chris Urmson  says the company plans to commercially launch its technology with about 20 fully autonomous trucks with no driver by the end of this year.

“This next year will be the one where the magic happens, where we go from telling the story of what automated vehicles will do for transportation to actually seeing and realizing it out in the world,” Urmson said in a recent panel discussion hosted by Aurora’s supplier partner Continental at the giant Consumer Electronics Show in January.

While startups and tech companies are driving the development of autonomous driving technology, they are not going it alone.

Established industry players including truck makers, component suppliers, shippers, and trucking and logistics providers all have had a hand in shaping this technology and how it will be deployed.

Aurora has partnered with truck manufacturers Paccar and Volvo Trucks North America with the view to integrate and eventually deploy its technology on the  heavy Duty Class 8 truck models from those makers.

Aurora is also apparently working with global automotive supplier Continental to eventually mass produce the hardware components of its autonomous driving system, the Aurora Driver.

“We’ve built the company around partnerships, and we’ve seen that come to life,” Urmson said.

Another company, Kodiak Robotics also aims to begin operating autonomous trucks on public roads without a driver on board later this year.

“It’s a culmination of a lot of years’ work for many, many people,” Kodiak founder and CEO Don Burnette said.

“When we finally go driverless it is going to be a very exciting day,” Burnette added.

The latest autonomous truck designs have advanced significantly since the early test vehicles introduced five to 10 years ago.

“When you look at the original trucks that we built, they were pretty rough — rough on the eyes, for sure, they were basically just prototypes to see what’s possible,” Burnette said.

Companies such as Kodiak are now introducing trucks with streamlined sensor arrays, new safety features and redundant systems necessary for driverless operation.

At the  CES expo in January, Kodiak unveiled the truck design it plans to deploy in its initial driver-out runs.

After years of refining and validating their technology, developers are now paving the way for operational adoption, said autonomous trucking expert Lee White, president of LM White Consulting.

The next big step is figuring out the practical details of how to integrate the technology into the transportation industry.

“That’s what we’re going into for the next 36 months,” White said. “How are we going to adopt this technology? Where does it work? How does it work?”

After those early deployments take hold, the focus will turn to scaling up industry adoption, he added.

Several pioneers in autonomous trucking ended, slowed down or redirected their development work in 2023, including some of the biggest names and early leaders in this space.

In July, Google owned company Waymo sidelined its autonomous trucking division, Waymo Via, to concentrate its efforts on its ­Waymo One, a  robotaxi business, which currently offers rides in driverless passenger cars in several major cities.

TuSimple, which was once at the vanguard of autonomous truck development in North America, has been winding down its U.S. operations and shifting its attention to markets in the Asia-Pacific region after a series of setbacks. The company conducted pilots with major U.S. fleets and demonstrated an unmanned autonomous truck run on public roads in Arizona back in December 2021.

Another early player, Embark, was acquired in May by autonomous vehicle software firm Applied Intuition a few months after laying off the majority of its employees and announcing plans to shut down. Embark helped promulgate the hub-to-hub deployment model that has become the leading use case for autonomous truck development.

Locomation also closed down in 2023. The company had developed a system to electronically link a pair of trucks to form a driver-­guided automated convoy.

These latest departures join several other autonomous businesses that previously ceased operations.

Ride-hailing company Uber Technologies ended its work on autonomous vehicle development when it sold its Advanced Technologies Group to Aurora in early 2021. Uber ATG included Otto, the self-driving truck startup it acquired in 2016.

Ike, another self-driving truck startup, was acquired in late 2020 by Nuro, which is developing unmanned local delivery vehicles instead of heavy-duty trucks.

Starsky Robotics, which shut down in 2020, had been developing remotely monitored autonomous trucks that could be controlled from afar by remote drivers when necessary.

Despite this growing list of departures, the promise of autonomous trucking continues to attract newcomers as well.

Startup firm Stack AV, which exited stealth mode in September, has joined the ranks of companies developing autonomous driving technology for Class 8 heavy duty trucks.

The business, started by the founders of the now-shuttered autonomous driving firm Argo AI, is backed by investment holding firm SoftBank Group Corp.

Trucking and logistics companies that are participating in early pilot programs with autonomous truck developers are gaining a firsthand look at how this technology might fit into their own freight networks in the future.

Executives from two major truckload carriers discussed their experiences with autonomous trucks at a November press event hosted by developer Torc Robotics at its Albuquerque testing facility in New Mexico.

“We wanted to test and really understand the operational parameters of this evolution,”, senior vice president and general manager for truckload and Mexico at Schneider, John Bozec said.

Being involved in the early-stage deployment of this technology positions Schneider to consider how it might start to provision for autonomous trucks from a planning and strategy standpoint, he said.

“We owe it to our customers to stay on the cutting edge of what the industry offers from a technological standpoint,” added Ron Hall, vice president of equipment and fuel at  major US truck and logistics operator, C.R. England, one of the 30 top truck fleets in America .

Bozec and Hall said these pilots also enabled their companies to have frank conversations with their professional drivers about what this technology could mean for them.

“We don’t see this as displacing driver jobs, we see this as enhancing our network to the point where we can improve driver jobs and expand into areas where drivers are just not available,”Hall said.

“Even with volatility of freight volumes and rates, the availability of drivers is very often the biggest struggle for truckload carriers,” he said.

They believe that autonomous trucks could help address that challenge by shifting more driver jobs to local and regional routes that feed freight into autonomous truck hubs.

“Our opinion of this technology is it’s going to modify the driver’s job in a way that will improve driver home time, improve driver regularity of route and it’ll actually help us serve the driver better,” Hall said.

We don’t see this as displacing driver jobs. We see this as enhancing our network to the point where we can improve driver jobs and expand into areas where drivers are just not available.

 Hall and Bozec both pointed to safety as their companies’ top priority as they consider deploying this technology in their fleets in the future, followed by cost competitiveness.