Einride launches autonomous pods and electric freight operations in US

Swedish freight technology company Einride announced the launch of its operations in the United States. On Thursday, the company will officially begin testing its transport solutions — like its autonomous “pods,” electric trucks and “Saga” operating system — with partners like GE Appliances (GEA), Bridgestone and Oatly.

The company also announced that it would introduce a U.S. version of its pod which has been adapted to suit American road conditions and regulations, as well as a flatbed pod, a module vehicle built to accommodate a range of shipping needs, such as transporting containers from shipyards.

Einride operates one of Europe’s largest fleets of electric trucks. Its autonomous pods, which are built without a front cab, and thus, without room for a human safety operator, are also electric. Some of the other major players in the autonomous freight game, like Kodiak Robotics, TuSimple and Waymo, are not necessarily pursuing an electric-only approach.

“Between 7% and 8% of global CO2 emissions come from heavy road freight transport,” Robert Falck, CEO and founder of Einride, told TechCrunch. “One of the drivers for starting Einride is that I’m very worried that by optimizing and making road freight transport autonomous, but based on diesel, it’s likely that we will actually increase emissions because it would become that much cheaper to operate.”

Einride’s partnership with GEA will involve the deployment of seven autonomous and electric trucks that will run at the company’s 750-acre campus in Louisville, Kentucky, as well as other locations in Tennessee and Georgia. The company predicts GEA will save 870 tons of carbon dioxide emissions within the first year of launch, and the plan is to expand the partnership with GEA rapidly over the course of the next few years with additional trucks to be added.

The Bridgestone collaboration is more of a technology partnership aimed at co-creating sustainable mobility solutions for electrified and autonomous Class 8 vehicles.

The collaboration allows Einride to collect new layers of safety and efficiency-related data from Bridgestone’s smart-sensing tires, while enabling Bridgestone to integrate its advanced mobility technologies into Einride’s onboard vehicle platforms,” a spokesperson for Einride told TechCrunch. “Einride will supply connected electric trucks and digital services under a subscription agreement to Bridgestone for its U.S. shipping logistics network, with the aim of electrifying the majority of Bridgestone’s landside transport needs by 2025.”

Oatly, an oat milk company, is already a partner of Einride’s in Europe and is now expanding that partnership to the U.S. Einride wouldn’t share many details about the American expansion, but Falck said that it will look similar to how Einride digitalized and electrified Oatly’s European transportation beginning in 2020. In Europe, and presumably in the U.S., Einride provides Oatly with electric trucks and its Saga platform, which has helped the company go electric quicker and reduce its carbon footprint by 87% on selected routes, according to Einride.

Einride’s U.S. launch also coincides with an update to the Saga platform. Saga, which comes from the old Norse word for “all knowing,” is the IoT system that runs through Einride’s electric trucks and pods. It’s how the company optimizes routes and runs a large electric fleet, and Einride hopes it will become a sort of universal operating system that will help transform the heavy freight industry and empower companies to electrify their fleets.

“The current trucking industry is extremely fragmented and not very coordinated,” said Falck. “It’s hard to go electric, but it’s not about range and it’s not about how much you can actually deploy electric. If we use our Saga platform and our operating system, you can actually electrify up to 40% of the U.S. road freight transport system with a competitive business case using existing technology. It’s more about deploying new way of thinking rather than just improving the hardware.”

Because Einride’s pods don’t employ on-board safety operators, the company has also employed a new way of thinking about how to achieve Level 4 autonomy. (Level 4 means the vehicles can handle all aspects of driving in certain conditions without human intervention, according to SAE International.)

Einride’s entire system has to be built differently due to the lack of a safety driver, says Falck. Other companies collect miles with a human operator in the front seat, but Falck calls what Einride has done the “toddler approach,” where it teaches the vehicle to first crawl, then walk slowly until it gradually increases its capabilities.

“We started with traditional Level 4 and then increased usability in applications, combining autonomous with the remote driver ability, so that gives us the flexibility and the benefits of autonomous and human agility and decision making,” said Falck.

The startup has been testing its AV system on public roads in Europe since 2019, but doesn’t yet have a date to start testing in the U.S.

“Since we don’t have a safety driver in the vehicle, or even room for a safety driver, we have to take a different approach to get the legislation,” said Falck. “It varies from nation to nation and state to state, but at the core, it’s about guaranteeing the safety in the application itself. That’s also been our approach since the start to be able to verify the safety case in all applications without the driver in the vehicle.”

A remote truck driver, or “pod operator” will oversee Einride’s pods and take over in certain situations. Falck says he doesn’t believe in Level 5 autonomy, or one in which AVs essentially drive and think better than humans, and aims for Einride’s system to always have humans in the loop for better agility and decision making.

“Machines still work for the benefit of humans,” said Falck. “We’re still quite far from having that level of AI that the whole industry has been chasing for more than 15 years now, and for us, there are a lot of situations where you can get the benefits of autonomous but also the benefits of having a human in the loop. For instance, if you want to back up to a different gate or want to interact with the drivers around you. It’s really a benefit to have that human decision-making and doesn’t impact the business case too much.”

Einride said it has hired its first pod operator, who has a background in trucking as well as a trucking license, and will reveal them at an event later this year.

In addition to the U.S. launch announcement, Einride also said it would officially establish a U.S. headquarters in New York, where parts of the leadership team will be based, as well as regional offices in Austin, San Francisco and in the South East. It does not plan to build factories in the U.S. at this time.