Skip to main content
Complete Olympic Games coverage at your fingertips
Your inside track on the Olympic Games
Enjoy unlimited digital access
$1.99
per week for 24 weeks
Complete Olympic Games coverage at your fingertips
Your inside track onthe Olympics Games
$1.99
per week
for 24 weeks
// //

Raghavender Sahdev, CEO of NuPort Robotics. The Toronto-based company is working with Canadian Tire Corp. Ltd. on a project using driver-assisted autonomous trucks to move goods from rail depots to a distribution centre in the GTA.

RICHARD SIBBALD/Handout

Are autonomous trucks the future of freight transportation? A number of the finest minds in automotive engineering are convinced the answer is yes, but they may have a long road ahead of them.

“Autonomous trucks are coming,” said Mike Roeth, the executive director of the North American Council for Freight Efficiency (NACFE). He says the only questions are when they will begin arriving as production vehicles, how deeply integrated the technology will be into the vehicle and what autonomy level they will have.

True autonomy, as defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers’ scale as Level 5, where vehicles operate full time, in any conditions, without a human pilot, is still an ambitious goal. Numerous challenges remain, principally the technology’s ability to deal with the unpredictable nature of real-world driving.

Story continues below advertisement

With its support for innovation through tax credits and research funding, as well as regulations that allow for autonomous vehicle (AV) testing, Ontario has attracted numerous startups that are tackling the engineering problems that come with autonomous vehicles.

Gatik AI Inc. and NuPort Robotics Inc. are two startups taking advantage of the supportive environment. While they are taking different approaches, both believe the “middle mile” will be the sweet spot for trucking.

The middle mile describes that part of a product’s journey between the manufacturing site and a distribution centre, or between a distribution centre and a retail outlet. It is distinct from the “final mile,” or “last mile,” which delivers to an end customer’s door. Gatik and NuPort Robotics are tackling middle-mile autonomous deliveries over relatively short distances, no more than 40 kilometres.

The middle mile is appealing for these companies because they say it offers the potential for a more predictable, less chaotic environment. And chaos is the enemy of autonomous driving. The principal problems lie in what engineers call “edge cases.” These are situations that are completely unexpected – such as a unique sign or unforeseen kind of wildlife on the road, for instance – but that the autonomous system must be able to deal with. The more predictable the environment, the fewer edge cases should be encountered.

Gatik has been making middle-mile deliveries using driver-assisted autonomous trucks for grocery giant Loblaw Cos. Ltd. since 2020.

handout

According to Gatik’s head of policy and communications, Richard Steiner, operating over the middle mile improves an autonomous vehicle’s chances of success by operating on “fixed, repeatable routes.”

Gatik has been making middle-mile deliveries using driver-assisted autonomous trucks for grocery giant Loblaw Cos. Ltd. since 2020. Ferrying goods from the distribution centre in the Greater Toronto Area to local stores on the same routes day in and day out helps to eliminate unpredictability, Mr. Steiner said.

Gatik, which is based in Palo Alto, Calif., and Toronto, has not yet removed the human driver from the equation. However, Mr. Steiner says the company has received approval to do driverless trials in Arkansas, where it works with Walmart, and these tests will go ahead this year.

Story continues below advertisement

Toronto-based NuPort Robotics is working with Canadian Tire on a similar project, moving goods in a 20-km radius from rail depots to the distribution centre in the GTA. NuPort chief executive officer Raghavender Sahdev says that by staying out of the city core, they have reduced the complexity of the route.

“Humans are very unpredictable and it’s tough to have autonomous driving where there is a lot of traffic,” Mr. Sahdev said. “I’m not saying it’s impossible; it’s just much easier when there is less traffic.”

Raquel Urtasun, founder of autonomous trucking startup Waabi Innovation Inc., which focuses on long-haul trucking.

The Globe and Mail

Raquel Urtasun is the founder of autonomous-trucking startup Waabi Innovation Inc., which also makes its home in Toronto. While her model focuses on long-haul trucking, because she believes highways are less complex and will yield faster and safer results than either Gatik’s urban roads or NuPort’s suburban byways, she shares their optimism that AVs are coming.

“I truly believe this is going to happen, and my life’s mission is to provide self driving to the world,” she said. “It’s going to happen; it’s a matter of time.”

Autonomous trucking will offer many benefits, proponents say. Mr. Steiner says Gatik’s middle-mile solution offers reduced costs and faster turnaround times, while NuPort’s Mr. Sahdev argues that greater efficiency will mean fewer trucks on the road, which will improve the carbon footprint of trucking and help alleviate the shortage of truck drivers. Mr. Sahdev notes that greater road safety will be another benefit.

Not everyone agrees. Francesco Biondi, an assistant professor in the department of human kinesiology at the University of Windsor, says the belief that autonomous driving will improve highway safety is based on a myth. If 95 per cent of accidents are caused by human error, and you remove humans from the equation, the theory goes, then accidents won’t happen.

Story continues below advertisement

“I think there is a bias that humans are dumber than a machine, or we’re just dumb,” he said. “The reality is that these machines may be good at completing individual tasks, but in terms of the ability to integrate information, make decisions using the information that they perceive, and execute behaviours and actions that are consistent with the decision making, there’s no competition [with the human brain] today.”

While Biondi, who is 34, says he doesn’t believe he will see widespread adoption of autonomous driving in his lifetime, he does believe that if AVs can be segregated from general traffic, they will act like a train. He said the model that employs a human driver to pilot the truck from the warehouse to the highway and then from the highway to the final destination is most likely to succeed.

“They won’t have a railroad, but they won’t encounter other cars or road users cutting them off or being in their path,” he said. “It’s a train without a railroad, and we know trains are safe.”

Shopping for a new car? Check out the Globe Drive Build and Price Tool to see the latest discounts, rebates and rates on new cars, trucks and SUVs. Click here to get your price.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow topics related to this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies