The Road to Autonomy Podcast

The Road to Autonomy hosted by Grayson Brulte is a podcast featuring unconventional conversations about the future of mobility.

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Investing in The Future

Reilly Brennan, General Partner, Trucks VC joined Grayson Brulte on The Road To Autonomy Podcast to discuss investing in the future.

The conversation begins with Reilly and Grayson discussing what is going to happen when consolidation begins in the autonomous vehicle industry.

This is a period of consolidation because you have essentially a lot of the robo-taxi ideas turned into commercial applications, probably around logistics and parcels.

– Reilly Brennan

Then there are the startups such as Bear Flag Robotics (acquired by John Deere – August 2021) and Gatik that have been focused on specific applications since day one. Shifting the conversation to industrial use cases, Grayson asks Reilly what his thoughts are on the industrial market as it relates to autonomy.

One of those specific industrial markets is mining. With global mining companies hitting record profits and Rio Tinto recently announcing a $7.7 billion half-year dividend, Grayson asks Reilly if a global mining company could potentially acquire an autonomy startup.

No doubt. Electrification and AV to those specific players is as much on their mind as the way you would think about DHL, UPS, Amazon, etc adding autonomy and electrification to theirs. It’s just a component of how they make money or will make more money in the future.

– Reilly Brennan

There is a growing segment of the startup market has is beginning to focus on the opportunities in the industrial market. One aspect of the startup industrial market that is booming is the autonomous trucking industry.

The autonomous trucking industry is generating revenue and shoring up the supply chain through automation, as consumers battle ever-increasing inflation. Reilly rightly points out that this industry is heavily dependent on partnerships to scale and return capital to shareholders and investors.

One of the key partnerships in the future will be railroads. Grayson makes a prediction that in the next 18 to 24 months, a railroad will buy an autonomous trucking company.

Another segment of the industrial market is maritime. Looking at investment opportunities in the space, Reilly is currently studying hydrography and shipping routes. There is an emerging opportunity to map waterways which will increase shipping efficiencies.

The depths within ports can change so much that it impacts how much payload you can take.

– Reilly Brennan

As maritime shipping routes get optimized, it’s time to allow autonomous trucks to enter and operate at ports.

The partnership dynamics of autonomous trucking is arguably one of the most important parts of the business. In fact, we have seen some of the logistics companies take investments from entities that own or have access to those ports for that specific reason.

It’s a fundamental question that there is not any one company, even Waymo that can lay claim to a leadership position for those specific pickup points. That is a big opportunity and in fact, it’s probably more important than saying you are running 10,000 trips a day on this route in Texas.

If someone came to us and said if I secured the access to these specific vital ports in the United States, I think that is actually saying something a great deal.

– Reilly Brennan

Staying on the topic of Waymo, Grayson asks Reilly if Waymo will eventually split into two separate companies: Waymo Via focused on autonomous trucking and Waymo One focused on autonomous vehicles.

It has always been a question in my mind whether we were at the point in this area of autonomy where you could have a multi-silhouette autonomy company.

– Reilly Brennan

Is Waymo the only company that could pull off a multi-silhouette approach to autonomy, because of Alphabet’s continued long-term financing commitment? It looks that way as Aurora has seemingly shifted a majority of its focus to autonomous trucking.

For companies that don’t have a Google as a supporter and an investor, I think you probably have to pick one thing you are world-class in.

– Reilly Brennan

Without an Alphabet-like financing partner, does Aurora get to a crossroads where they decide to sell off their autonomous vehicle division and focus solely on trucking? It’s a possibility as the autonomous vehicle market is beginning to consolidate around Argo AI, Cruise, and Waymo.

Then there is May Mobility which is focused on structured routes. Pick-up and drop-offs from airports are a huge opportunity that the autonomous vehicle industry is currently not exploiting. The true opportunity for airports and AVs is in resort towns with limited traffic and high-amounts of passenger traffic during predefined periods of time throughout the year.

Looking at the overall investment landscape, Reilly shares a story and his insights into how the team at Trucks VC uncovers potential investment opportunities.

When we look at companies, we tend to not really look for ideas, we kind of just wait for great founders to reveal something to us and then we get onboard.

– Reilly Brennan

Wrapping up the conversation, Reilly and Grayson discuss the circular economy and the future of electric vehicles.

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Recorded on Tuesday, March 1, 2022.

Electrification of Industrial Logistics

Alan Ohnsman, Senior Editor, Forbes joined Grayson Brulte on The Road To Autonomy Podcast to discuss the electrification of industrial logistics.

The conversation begins with Alan and Grayson discussing who is going to win as multiple industries shift to electrification.

Most of the attention has gone to say Tesla and the passenger car market. But what’s happening on the heavy-duty industrial vehicle side, I think is probably more exciting because they can actually move a lot faster. It’s hard to get consumers to change buying habits.

– Alan Ohnsman

While a lot of attention in and around electrification is currently being paid to passenger and heavy-duty industrial vehicles, freight rail is beginning to emerge as an interesting opportunity for electrification.

A freight train is a power plant on wheels.

– Alan Ohnsman

As freight trains begin to become electrified, an opportunity arises to connect freight rail to electric heavy-duty trucks, creating intermodal 2.0. One of the keys to making this happen is positive train control which has created a more intelligent rail network.

You both have the opportunity to move way more freight more efficiently than ever before, and if you can electrify it, so much the better. If you could then tie your railheads and depots into autonomous trucking networks, you got something really interesting going on.

So there is so much potential to increase efficiency, while also cutting carbon emissions from rail and freight movement across the United States over the next five to ten years. It’s really remarkable.

– Alan Ohnsman

With the shift to global electrification, a majority of the infrastructure for heavy-duty industrial applications still has to be developed. Additionally, there are still uncertainties around the global supply chain for precious metals that are needed to make batteries. Is there enough supply?

Based on current technologies, there is probably not enough supply out there. There just isn’t.

– Alan Ohnsman

Does a potential global shortage of precious metals, create a market opening for hydrogen to gain market share and acceptance with industrial applications? Grayson and Alan discuss the potential opportunities for hydrogen and why an industrial company could embrace hydrogen as an alternative to gas.

But at its current stage, hydrogen is not clean. The same could be said for the mining of lithium as Serbia’s government recently revoked a lithium mining permit due to the potential environmental costs of the project.

In California, there are also environmental concerns around mining for lithium in the Salton Sea. With a projected capability of mining 600,000 metric tons of lithium a year from the Salton Sea, will this become a political issue? Potentially as there is a great economic incentive and potential national security issue developing around lithium.

With potentially limited precious metals and a focus on carbon impact, there is an opportunity to introduce and create a circular economy. Volvo is taking the first steps with their soon-to-be-introduced Polestar Zero.

Wrapping up the conversation, Alan discusses what happens if hydrogen could be made from renewable sources of energy and the impact that would have on industrial logistics.

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Recorded on Tuesday, February 8, 2022.

Intermodal 2.0

Cheng Lu, President & CEO, TuSimple joined Grayson Brulte on The Road To Autonomy Podcast to discuss Driver Out and Intermodal 2.0.

The conversation begins with Cheng reflecting on the last twelve months. From a traditional IPO to Driver Out, TuSimple has made incredible strides as the business and technology scale.

Driver Out is one of our big milestones we had for 2021. It’s clearly a critical path to commercialization.

-Cheng Lu

As TuSimple prepares to commercialize its Driver Out autonomous freight operations, the company announced on February 2, 2022, that it had successfully completed over 550 miles of Driver Out on open public roads in real-world conditions. Cheng goes on to explain how the company is planning to scale the program.

Over the next two years we are scaling the ODD (Operational Design Domain), so day time, new routes.

– Cheng Lu

The annual inflation rate for overall trucking costs is 17%. For the long-haul trucking sector, the annual inflation rate is 25%. With TuSimple successfully launching Driver Out, Grayson asks Cheng how TuSimple’s autonomous trucks can help to lower their customer’s inflation costs.

Our mission is to lower the cost of freight transportation.

– Cheng Lu

With Driver Out in the process of scaling, TuSimple and Union Pacific announced a partnership in which TuSimple will help Union Pacific extend their operations. The partnership will allow Union Pacific to expand their network by using autonomous trucks where rail infrastructure is not available.

If you could mix autonomy into their supply chain and to their network, it could add a lot more flexibility to their network. It can also help them expand their reach of their network, that today their train tracks do not get to. It’s very expensive now to build any new railroad tracks and so if you can leverage autonomy for that, it’s significant.

– Cheng Lu

This is another example of Union Pacific embracing emerging trends that will have an overall positive benefit on their business. Union Pacific had a similar move in 1936 when the company developed Sun Valley and connected the resort to Los Angeles via rail. The all-encompassing travel experience package was invented.

Could the Union Pacific / TuSimple partnership usher in the future of freight shipping? Cheng and the team at TuSimple view it as intermodal 2.0 where autonomous trucks, rail, and human-driven trucks will all complement each other to shore up the supply chain.

Autonomous trucking could be intermodal 2.0.

– Cheng Lu

Wrapping up the conversation, Cheng discusses the economic benefits of Driver Out and scaling the TuSimple business.

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Recorded on Monday, February 7, 2022.

Moving Past Misconceptions

Ariel Wolf, General Counsel, Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association joined Grayson Brulte on The Road To Autonomy Podcast to discuss misconceptions of AV technology in the marketplace.

The conversation begins with Ariel discussing the rebranding of the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets to the Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association.

[The brand] showcases the evolution of both the AV industry and the organization’s role with policymakers and the public.

– Ariel Wolf

As AV technology advances, building and maintaining public trust is critical to the adoption of autonomous vehicles. In addition to public trust, there is a need for a National Autonomous Vehicle Framework that promotes the safe and swift deployment of autonomous vehicles in the United States.

In the market, there are misconceptions around what an autonomous vehicle is as some consumers are mistaken that ADAS (advanced driver-assistance systems) equipped vehicles are indeed autonomous vehicles.

One of the key challenges is the confusion in the public between the features and benefits of driver-assist technology and autonomous vehicle technology.

– Ariel Wolf

The Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association has called on Congress, policymakers, journalists, and the industry to clearly distinguish between ADAS and autonomous vehicles. When the terms are intermingled, it leads to confusion in the market and erodes public trust.

When you look at the perception of AV technology, it’s influenced unfortunately by unrelated ADAS technology and that leads to a diminishment of consumer trust that is really unjustified.

– Ariel Wolf

On February 2, 2022, Ariel testified during The Road Ahead for Automated Vehicles hearing, part of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Subcommittee on Highways and Transit in Congress. During his testimony, he highlighted the important safety benefits of autonomous vehicles.

Deploying AV technology to make the roads safer should be part of a holistic solution.

– Ariel Wolf

AV technology will not just make the roads safer, the technology will create jobs and shore up the supply chain. A steady supply chain that is complimented with AV technology will help to lower inflation. With a 40-year high inflation rate in the United States, Grayson and Ariel discuss autonomous trucks and the benefit the technology will have on the U.S. economy.

According to recent data released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the annual inflation rate for overall trucking costs is 17%. For the long-haul trucking sector, the annual inflation rate is 25%.

With record-high inflation, Grayson asks Ariel why the United States is not embracing autonomous trucking as part of a comprehensive strategy to reduce inflation. The autonomous trucking industry is willing to step up, but there is a need for a national framework and engaging conversations between the Government and the industry.

Conversations also need to take place between the Ports and the autonomous trucking industry as the costs to ship goods have gone up due to the supply chain crisis. At the Ports of LA and Long Beach, it can take anywhere from 28 to 52 days to ship a pair of shoes produced in China from Shanghai to Los Angeles, up from between 17 and 28 days before the pandemic. And the total cost has gone up by $1.77 per pair. Yet the Ports will not engage with the autonomous trucking industry.

Today, autonomous trucks can not test and/or deploy in California due to the regulatory environment. This is having a negative impact on not only the citizens of the State of California but all Americans, as 31% of all imports to the U.S. enter the country through the Port of LA and Port of Long Beach.

Autonomous trucking is going to be a positive for everyone involved.

– Ariel Wolf

The California Alliance for Freight Innovation (CAFI) was founded to transform how freight moves across the State of California to the benefit of everyone. With the future of autonomous trucking unsure in California, the industry has opened operations in Texas and is actively hauling freight in the State.

Wrapping up the conversation, Grayson and Ariel discuss the environmental benefits of autonomous trucks.

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Recorded on Friday, February 4, 2022.

Peak of The New Gold Rush

Sean Ackley, eMobility Segment Lead, Americas, Hitachi joined Grayson Brulte on The Road To Autonomy Podcast to discuss why the electric vehicle industry is at the peak of the new gold rush.

The conversation begins with Sean discussing how he first became interested in electric vehicles. From building a performance golf cart to electric race cars, he shares insight into how his passion for racing turned into building his own EVs and eventually a career.

From passion to a career, Sean has incredible real-world insight into EVs. With this insight in mind, Grayson asks Sean what his thoughts are on the current state of the electric vehicle market.

It’s exciting. It’s certainly at a fever pitch of attention globally, both from people who are looking at it as an opportunity to invest in new commercial models, companies looking to dabble in new technologies. I almost feel like we are at the peak of the new gold rush.

– Sean Ackley

While the EV market is at the peak of the new gold rush, what happens next?

There is going to be a lot of winners. There is going to be a lot of people striking gold.

– Sean Ackley

With a gold rush underway, there are still hurdles that have to be crossed and one of those is the inconsistency in EV charging. There are numerous complaints from EV owners about chargers being broken when they need to charge.

A broken charger does not necessarily reflect poorly on the charging company, the majority of the time it reflects negatively on the car company. This is a problem that needs to be solved in order for EV market share to grow.

There is a lot of frustration in what you might call uptime and reliability of charging infrastructure.

– Sean Ackley

Consumer frustration with EV charging infrastructure is creating new opportunities for traditional oil and gas companies to enter the space. Shell is beginning to explore charging infrastructure with plans to operate over 500,000 chargers by 2025.

Users expect a parity to their experience to a petrol car or a gas engine vehicle.

– Sean Ackley

While the ability to quickly charge today is limited, does this create an opportunity for convenience stores to install EV charging stations? Grayson and Sean discuss what would have to happen from an infrastructure perspective to make EV charging at convenience stores a reality.

As more electric vehicles come online along with EV charging infrastructure, the grid will have to be upgraded to support the additional load demand.

We need to continue to invest in a robust and resilient grid and then supplement it where time is a critical factor with grid edge technologies. And then build out from there as technology continues to grow in efficiency.

– Sean Ackley

For EV owners who live in dense urban environments, access to EV charging can be challenging. Grayson and Sean discuss what the future of EV charging in cities might look like.

Wrapping up the conversation, Sean shares his vision of what the future of electrification looks like.

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Recorded on Tuesday, January 25, 2022.