Autonomous trucking startup Locomation is pursuing with two Class 8 trucks what others are trying to accomplish with one: ultimately operating without a driver in either cab.
The 3-year-old company is based in Pittsburgh, home of Carnegie Mellon University, a launch point for many of the brightest minds in robot cars and trucks. Founder Cetin Mericli is one of that group.
Locomation is not just about autonomous trucks, a challenge of at least a half-dozen well-financed startup companies. San Diego-based TuSimple Holdings was the first of the class to go public. Three others are in line for significant operating cash and public trading through mergers with special purpose acquisition companies.
Mentioned as a possible SPAC candidate by The Information in June, Locomation won’t address going public other than acknowledging the expense of its undertaking.
“We are considering all viable and appropriate financing options,” Mericli told FreightWaves.
TuSimple (NASDAQ: TSP) and other Level 4 high-autonomy competitors are focused on robot trucks that eventually will have no human driver in the cab. Locomation is literally doubling down on that, starting with its human-guided autonomous convoy.
The company eschews the term platooning, which has been used for decades to describe leader-follower trucking, Locomation expects to launch the first of four phases — 250 pairs of trucks and drivers — in 2022, with 60,000 Locomation-equipped trucks by 2025.
Autonomous relay network
By mid-decade, Locomation’s goal is to have pairs of driverless trucks plying an autonomous relay network (ARN) moving significant amounts of freight that could be enormously profitable.
“We’ve identified 68 roughly 500-mile-long segments on 25 interstates that actually correspond to 88% of the freight that moves daily,” Mericli said. “The density is there. What needs to happen is some way of freight optimization and some operational arrangements to aggregate freight at the beginning of those segments and at the end of those segments.”
As that happens, Locomation needs to persuade carriers that overlaying their routes against the ARN can reveal where long-term convoying — and solo driverless trucks — make sense.
“Regardless of the flavor of the autonomy, some change in the freight optimization, planning, dispatching, et cetera will be required,” Mericli said. “It will not be a complete drop-in replacement of the human drivers for a really long time to come.”
But, oh, the possibilities once autonomy proves reliable.
Locomation’s business plan assumes an implementation fee for its software and a 36-month subscription for each vehicle equipped, Chief Commercial Officer Glynn Spangenberg said.
“We’re planning for roughly 200,000 miles per vehicle per year in utilization,” he said. That is more than twice the mileage of a typical Class 8 for-hire truck today.
“When you look at it through the lens of trucking where the gross revenues are tremendous, there’s a big opportunity to reduce [operational cost] at the first rollout about 25 cents per mile, going from the way that they’re doing it today to the way that we propose.”
First customer getting ready
Family-owned Wilson Logistics is Locomation’s first customer, ordering 1,120 systems for new Freightliner and Peterbilt trucks that it plans to integrate into its 1,100-truck fleet over the next several years. The Springfield, Missouri-based company is already identifying routes where the Locomation technology could add value, CEO Darrel Wilson told FreightWaves.
“We went with a big order, but none of these will be delivered and none of these will be put in service until [the technology is] proven,” Wilson said.
“At this point, we’re building [truckload] density in some of the lanes that we think we’re going to begin with,” he said. “So, when we have this technology ready and we start being able to utilize it, then we’ve got the foundation set.”
Level 4 autonomy, when operating without a human driver, could shave more than 40% of the cost of running a truck. Driver pay and benefits amounted to about 42% of the cost of operating a truck in 2019, according to the American Transportation Research Institute.
“The operational savings associated with reengineering the supply chain for autonomy delivers about a 5-7% immediate lift just through the efficient utilization of the equipment,” Spangenberg said.
Locomation figures its hardware and software, when fully implemented, could extract $120 billion of the $343 billion paid to carriers to haul freight today.
A driver shortage worsened by the COVID pandemic, the federal Drug & Alcohol Clearinghouse crackdown on substance abusers, and an aging driver population nearing retirement all work in favor of Locomation and other driverless trucking software companies targeting the long-haul segment where recruiting and retaining drivers is most difficult.
“If you’re talking about actually eliminating a driver position or positions, you’re talking about regular operating cost savings,” said Marc Scribner, a senior research analyst at the Reason Foundation. “It makes the business case for this technology so much stronger than talking about 7% average fuel efficiency improvements [from platooning.]
Locomation is in the early stages of implementation. San Antonio-based Rush Enterprises will install and maintain its systems. On its own, Locomation has just six trucks and four drivers, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. Those trucks covered 31,097 miles in 2020.
The first phase of the Locomation plan has a human driver in full control of the lead truck assisted by advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) that allow some camera-monitored automated driving.
“The [second] truck is going to be an autonomous vehicle that operates as a follower first,” Spangenberg said. “But the idea of taking the driver out of the follower vehicle is not a large leap because the driver, theoretically, is going to be asleep.”
But not always.
“You’re going to get twice as much utilization out of your existing equipment and existing drivers even with the two-truck, two-drivers scenario, because now you can keep the truck moving instead of half the time the truck is sitting on the side because the driver needs to rest,” Mericli said.
In the midterm, Locomation anticipates virtual teams of two human and two robot drivers, one of each per truck. “Starting with the drone followers, we are using only one driver in the lead truck, and that driver drives for 10 or 11 hours and is done.” Mericli said.
The Level 4 autonomous truck will have to handle whatever happens, including another vehicle cutting between the lead and follower trucks. Both trucks are identically equipped with Level 4 technology, but the system will run in shadow mode on the lead truck.
The earliest Level 4 driverless target date — projected by Aurora Innovation, another Pittsburgh-based company — is late 2023. Mericli is unconcerned because blown deadlines are common in new technology.
“We anticipate there will be more slipping in the timelines,” he said. “If the next step happens late, we are fine. It gives us time to do it right instead of rushing to do it fast.”
If it waddles like a duck…
Locomation’s aversion to the term platooning reflects a lack of enthusiasm for a commercial Level 1 connected system pioneered by Silicon Valley-based Peloton Technology Inc., not to be confused with the better-known exercise equipment company of the same name.
Platooning is called leader-follower by the U.S. Army, which has hundreds of trucks in autonomous systems operating in resupply roles on bases around the country.
“Peloton essentially defined what platooning meant and means now,” Spangenberg said. “And it’s likely going to have a long tail of some wreckage and there’s going to be a wake of that. Our concept of operations and our models are completely different.”
So, even if Locomation waddles like a platooning duck, choosing the term convoying to describe its function is more a branding exercise than a technology differentiator, Peloton co-founder and CEO Steve Boyd told FreightWaves.
Industry consultant Richard Bishop, who has worked with both Peloton and Locomation, agrees.
“They’re just different terms for, in general, the same concept,” he said. “Since the word platoon has been around forever and Locomation’s new, they opted to use a different term that’s a better fit with their specific approach.”
The state of Peloton Technology
After being an early poster child for the first step of autonomous commercial trucking, Peloton has fallen on hard times.
When market leader Daimler Trucks decided in early 2019 to focus on vertically integrated Level 2 and high-autonomy Level 4, others experimenting with platooning got skittish. The COVID pandemic has played havoc with Peloton testing, fleet trials and product deployment.
Further complications followed a recent Federal Communications Commission decision to alter long-standing vehicle-to-vehicle communication protocols, requiring product reconfigurations for truck platooning and other connected vehicle systems.
A sale of Peloton is in its final stages, Boyd said. He declined comment on prospective buyers, but one candidate may be Clarksburg, Maryland-based Robotic Research LLC, which supplies the Army with platooning-related technology and is developing systems for commercial trucks and buses.
The varied needs of commercial trucking suggest that platooning has a future based on its potential fuel savings alone, Bishop said.
“It really could be another five years or more for real solo driverless [trucks],” he said. “And that vacuum, in essence, creates the opportunity for both Level 1 and Level 4 follower platooning because it’s so much more ready.”