Self-driving trucks, for many, might stretch the imagination.
But if Stack, a new Pittsburgh startup can make such trucks work reliably, shipping and long-haul transportation will never be the same.
“Autonomous vehicles are safer. They see what drivers cannot,” said Brian Kennedy, vice president of the Pittsburgh Technology Council, which promotes and helps companies like Stack AV, a startup company that is developing software for driverless trucks. “They’re better in bad weather. They would make shipping faster – no breaks for sleeping and eating. Long haul trucking is hard work.”
Stack was founded last month by a group not unfamiliar with the race to develop autonomous vehicles. CEO Bryan Salesky and members of his team worked previously at Argo AI, an autonomous vehicle company.
Pittsburgh, along with San Francisco, has been at the center of development of self-driving technology, which Kennedy of the Tech Council, and others attribute to cutting edge robotics programs at Carnegie Mellon University and computer science there and at the University of Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh’s tech economy has continued to grow over the past decade as start-ups and large corporations alike looked to capitalize on the region’s talent and other resources, including low cost-of-living.
Company attracts foreign investment
Salesky has yet to reveal many details about his new company, founded with collaborators Peter Rander and Brett Browning.
Argo AI, a Level 4 autonomous vehicle company backed by Ford Motor Co. and Volkswagen AG, was once valued at $12.4 billion. The automakers owned more than 80 percent of Argo AI before closing the standalone company last year and absorbing it internally.
Stack is financed by Japanese multinational investment holding firm SoftBank Group Corp. The bank, financial analysts say, has invested at least $1 billion in the company.
“Stack is led by industry veterans, Bryan, Pete, and Brett, who have been instrumental in shaping the AV industry,” Kentaro Matsui, head of new business at SoftBank, told Fortune magazine. “Under their leadership, coupled with SoftBank’s AI expertise and resources, we believe Stack’s AI-powered technology will fundamentally change the transportation of goods and supply chains.”
Salesky studied computer science at the University of Pittsburgh and worked at Carnegie Mellon University’s National Robotics Engineering Center. While there, he helped develop technology for Caterpillar’s CatMineStar, an autonomous mining technology, which has been used in heavy vehicles to haul and move 5 billion tons of material related to mining extraction.
“We have learned over the years how to handle and how to build autonomy systems for heavy machinery. And we’ll be able to take that knowledge and bake it into what we’re doing at Stack,” Salesky told Truck Tech, a trucking industry newsletter. “What’s neat about this team is that we’ve got a lot of experience in automating just about anything with wheels or tracks.”
Tech comes in increments
Technology for autonomous vehicles is not perfect, as was on display last week in Houston when autonomous vehicles abruptly parked three abreast at a busy intersection. The scene blocked traffic and went viral on social media.
Kennedy of the Tech Council said he expects developments in autonomous vehicles to be incremental.
“There are models with many autonomous features and more and more features added in newer models,” he said.
According to U.S. News, a publication prominent in ranking cars, there are now 10 car models, including the Tesla Model S and the Cadillac Escalade, that are almost entirely self-driving.
“Over the past few years, these brands have introduced many new vehicles with driver-assistance features that take much of the burden off the driver,” the magazine wrote. “These systems alleviate driver fatigue by assisting with steering and acceleration to various degrees.”