Autonomous trucks have been one of the industry’s hottest topics over the past several years. Many companies have created long-term cost savings and sustainability plans that hinge on these highly anticipated vehicles. Now, they’re finally starting to hit the highway.
The number of automated trucks and buses on the road is expected to grow from practically zero this year to 1.2 million by 2032, according to a new market analysis by Guidehouse Insights, and well-known AV technology company Locomation is leading the charge.
Locomation has made a name for itself with its human-guided Autonomous Relay ConvoySM (ARC) technology, the first step on the road to full autonomy. An ARC system consists of two autonomy-capable trucks with one driver in each truck. Each driver takes turns actively leading the convoy, fully engaged in the function of driving, while the driver in the follower truck rests in the sleeper berth off duty, as the vehicle drives in autonomous follower mode.
As a result of this unique approach to enabling autonomy, Locomation expects to be the first company to deploy autonomous trucking technology safely, legally and routinely in commercial operations at scale across the United States, starting next year.
The company was founded in 2018 by five robotics experts from Carnegie Mellon University’s National Robotics Engineering Center (CMU NREC). From the outset, they were dissidents in the AV industry, doubting the near-term viability of fully driverless autonomy. They knew by experience in the world of robotics and autonomous vehicles that a fully driverless 80,000-pound tractor-trailer combination would require significantly more development time, safety validation, and regulatory support than was being touted at the time.
Locomation saw the most practical path to full autonomy as using existing AV technology to augment, rather than replace, human drivers. The company focused on freight trucking and went after its biggest pain points, in particular the need for more supply-chain capacity, reduced costs, driver shortages, and lower carbon emissions.
“A lot of the original autonomous trucking tech companies built their business models around solving 100% of AV driving challenges in order to become commercially viable, but how that actually happens is a big question mark,” Locomation co-founder and CEO Çetin Meriçli said. “Until some big future breakthroughs in AI to deal with all weather, road, and traffic conditions, no matter how unusual or unexpected, we think they’ll be stuck testing and running pilots under limited conditions for the foreseeable future.”
To achieve a more realistic path to autonomy, Locomation first overhauls each customer’s freight planning and scheduling system to optimize the long haul between 250-mile hubs, enabling the trucks to run up to 22 hours per day. From there, they rely on the ARC system, along with its SaaS component, to maximize the total benefits to the carrier.
Through this process, Locomation-equipped carriers can deliver four loads and be back at their home hub in less than 24 hours. These two drivers will have effectively delivered twice the number of loads as a pair of team drivers and four times the number of loads as a solo driver in the same amount of time.
This human-in-the-loop approach means Locomation’s system will enable carriers to navigate complex and challenging scenarios such as interactions with law enforcement, adverse weather, construction zones, accident scenes, inspections and emergency vehicle encounters. Additionally, Locomation requires no new federal regulations because its convoys are controlled by human drivers in the lead. This goes a long way toward making the 2023 debut possible.
“At Locomation, we see ourselves as the vanguard of AV trucking version 2.0,” Meriçli said. “Our human-in-the-loop approach means we can deploy in the near term and make money, while generating millions of on-road miles that will prepare us to safely move into driverless autonomy on freeways with a hub-to-hub capability when that phase of the technology is ready.”
Locomation has three bonafide contracts to deliver over 2,600 autonomous truck systems starting in 2023. In the meantime, fleets and their shipper customers are implementing the route optimization service today to start gaining efficiencies while ensuring they are prepared to launch their autonomous trucking services when the systems are installed.
As fleets grow their autonomous truck services, Locomation’s early entry provides them with a competitive edge to gain market share and generate millions of real-world, on-road miles before their competitors are able to deploy autonomous trucks in long-haul operations in any sort of economically viable way.