Fernride, a German innovator in autonomous trucking, has closed an additional $19 million in its Series A round. New investors include Germany’s Deep Tech and Climate Funds (DTCF), alongside Munich Re Ventures, Bayern Kapital, and Klaus Kleinfeld, who becomes chair of Fernride’s board. The additional funding will help Fernride as it continues developing its technology and consolidates its position as the leader in autonomous, electric trucking.
Coverage of autonomous and electric vehicles often focuses on the consumer market, but logistics transport represents a significant sector in its own right; according to Logistics UK, HGVs and vans contribute over a third of all the transport sector’s greenhouse gas emissions. Fernride’s co-founder and CEO, Hendrik Kramer answered TFN’s questions about their solution and Fernride’s plans.
Autonomous vehicles, with a human touch
Fernride’s solution focuses on yard trucking, the vehicle movements within areas like ports and large facilities that take place as goods are transferred or manufactured. And they use a human-assisted approach, “the vehicles are self-driving, but a human teleoperator can intervene and drive the truck if the need arises,” Kramer explains. As well as increasing sustainability, the approach increased productivity and improves safety. Currently, the vehicles are controlled remotely, with one operator overseeing four vehicles, although the intent is to increase that, “in the future, our aim is for this to be an even more efficient operation, where a single teleoperator could assist dozens of automated trucks.”
The human element is an important part of Fernride’s product. “We’ve designed our system so that driverless vehicles can execute 100% of the tasks a human-driven truck can,” Kramer says. However, it will only proceed when it has sufficient level of confidence. “In practice, that means the vehicles will handle 80-90% of tasks without any human intervention, but when there’s an edge case such as broken glass in the road, or a tricky manoeuvre underneath a crane, the truck stops, and flags to the human teleoperator that it needs assistance.”
This adds extra safety for humans in what can be a dangerous environment. “There hasn’t traditionally been a lot of focus on the issue of worker safety in supply chain and logistics operations,” Kramer says. “Having a human in the loop ensures that there’s an extra degree of control and therefore a higher level of safety when it comes to these autonomous vehicles — making this human-machine collaboration system a much more reliable investment.”
Developing a new type of logistics driving
The human-assisted approach doesn’t just improve safety, but might also address the driver shortage. Recently, more drivers have left the job than have trained to replace them, but Fernride’s technology has provided an alternative job for them. “In recent In years, we’ve heard about truck driver shortages and how that’s affected global supply chains,” Kramer says. However, Fernride provides an alternative for those experienced drivers leaving because of the conditions. “Long-haul trucking involves time away from home, which can be avoided because the teleoperators can work remotely.”
The unique approach has seen Fernride already seeing wide use. “The trucks are currently in operation in ports across Europe, so they’re managing the loads you’d expect a human-driven vehicle to carry. The vehicles are also in use at the Volkswagen plant in Wolfsburg, Germany, to transport semifinished goods such as batteries or seats around the plant.” Kramer told us. “This is a real bastion of our company — the fact that these trucks can increase the productivity of a port, maritime terminal or logistics centre by taking on the same tasks that a human-driven, petrol-fuelled truck can.”
The combination of Fernride’s incremental approach, the environmental benefits, and already proven technology has been attractive to investors. “Fernride’s step-by-step approach is the optimal path towards building fully autonomous capabilities,” said Timur Davis, Director at Munich Re Ventures. “Fernride has already demonstrated its ability to partner with key players in the industry.”
DTCF’s Dr. Elisabeth Schrey highlighted the environmental benefits. “Fernride’s use of pioneering technologies that automate and decarbonise the supply chain fits very well into the DTCF investment focus,” she said, adding that Fernride, “has the potential to develop into a leading global technology champion from Germany.”
However, that incremental approach should not be seen as a lack of ambition. Kramer highlights that driverless vehicles bring some small changes, that can have a big cumulative impact. “With no human in the cabin, there’s no engine idling, and no air conditioning running, both actions that have a large negative impact on carbon emissions.”
And he takes a similar incremental view about Fernride’s future. “Our immediate goal is to become the global leader in autonomous electric yard trucking,” says Kramer. But he wants to see the benefits spread further. “Long term, we want to take autonomous electric trucking beyond shipping yards onto public roads, extending the applications of this technology and establishing ourselves as a global leader in this sector.”