There is no doubt that autonomous semi-trucks will change the face of logistics. But there are questions that many would like clarity on around this cutting-edge technology. What kind of trucks will they be? When will we see autonomous trucks on the road? And how fast will the rollout be?
The answer to these questions depends in part on how we define autonomy. On a six-point scale from the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), driving automation ranges from 0 (fully manual) to 5 (fully autonomous). Companies like TORC and TuSimple are competing to bring level 4 trucks to market. Level 4 trucks can provide all driving under certain conditions. In the near-term, those conditions include departing from a depot or distribution center close to the interstate, driving on interstates in the Southwest (where there is not as much harsh weather), and then arriving at a depot or distribution center close to the exit of an interstate. Executives at TORC argue, convincingly in my mind, we won’t see Level 4 autonomous semi-tractor trailer rigs for several years.
But there is another kind of autonomous Class 8 truck that does not neatly fit the SAE’s scale that will be deployed starting this year. Locomation’s Autonomous Relay Convoy (ARC) solution enables one driver to pilot a lead truck equipped with technology augmentation while a follower truck operates in tandem through Locomation’s fully autonomous system. This allows the follower driver to log off and rest while the truck is in motion. This will allow drivers to drive twice as far while ensuring they don’t exceed the Department of Transportation’s hours of service regulations. For the lead truck, the autonomy is SAE Level 2, a human is driving but the vehicle had driver assist technologies. Meanwhile, the follower truck is automated to a large extent. Because a human is in control of the lead vehicle, the system as a whole should be considered Level 2.
The CEO of Locomation – Cetin Meriçli agrees that a Level 4 truck that does not operate in a convoy, does have some pretty big hurdles to overcome to be ready for use. Mr. Meriçli pointed out that when it comes to “controlling an 80,000-pound truck at highway speeds, there is no such thing as a fender bender. There needs to be indisputable evidence the autonomous truck is safe.” Some autonomous truck companies are trying to “brute force” the safety issues by collecting more and more data, using more and more sensors, and they end up with an autonomous hardware package that costs half a million dollars. “Where is the ROI in that?” With Locomation, however, the hardware costs are much less. “There can be payback in a year.”
There are also federal regulations in place to ensure safety. Federal law requires that commercial vehicles be able to detect and fix shifts in cargo. If the load shifts midway on a trip, federal law mandates that the truck needs to pull over, traffic triangles need to be put out, and then the load needs to be rebalanced. How could this be done without a driver? If law enforcement pulls a truck over for an infraction, there needs to be a way to interact with the officer. Trucks without drivers can’t do this. In short, there are edge cases for autonomous driving that have not yet been addressed.
In the Locomation model, the lead truck is being actively driven by one driver, the follower truck also has a driver that is not engaged. That driver is resting or sleeping. The loads/shipments/orders/trailers don’t have to have the same origin and destination. A trailer can be dropped. But their business model is based on driving 800 to 1100 miles per day in a convoy formation with between 90% and 99% in Autonomy mode. It is Locomation’s job not just to sell their trucks in a software as a service (SaaS) model, but to provide orchestration services as part of the SaaS agreement. These services include identifying the lanes and multistop routing that maximizes the ROI.
I asked Mr. Meriçli about the math associated with using different types of trucks, with different brake systems, different tires, and different loads. Could this make it difficult to have the lead truck brake and the follower truck brake at exactly the same rate of deacceleration?
Mr. Meriçli conceded this was true. “It is important to reduce the variance as much as possible. Initially, there will be no mixing and matching of trucks from different suppliers or trucks from the same supplier not purchased at the same time with the same configuration. The trucks that are to be linked will travel the same lane back and forth.
So, while autonomous relay trucks are complex, they are not nearly as complex as autonomous trucks that operate without drivers. Locomation has three paying customers. This year, Christenson Transportation signed a contract with intent to deploy 500 trucks equipped with Locomation’s Autonomous Relay Convoy systems.