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Autonomous VehiclesNewsTechnologyTrucking

Truck platooning company’s synced-up convoys make first commercial deliveries

Locomation CEO: Unlike full autonomy, platooning allows for the “superior understanding and capability of human drivers.”

  • Locomation and Wilson Logistics complete commercial delivery pilot along Interstate-84 in Oregon and Idaho

Truck platooning doesn’t quite capture the popular imagination in the same way as Level Four autonomy, a designation that refers to vehicles that can almost fully drive themselves. But new developments continue to chug along, the latest being the completion of a next-generation pilot by Locomation, a trucking technology startup based in Pittsburgh.

Platooning is the linking of two or three trucks in a convoy. The vehicles are not actually physically connected but technologies keep them in sync, allowing the trucks to drive closer to each other and improving fuel efficiency among other benefits.

Depending on the type of platooning, one or more of the trucks has a human driver, a factor that also makes platooning easier to market at scale.

“Human-guided convoys are a natural stepping stone to fully autonomous trucks, and will teach us much more and much faster [about autonomy] than we could do otherwise,” Çetin Meriçli, CEO and co-founder of Locomation, told FreightWaves. 

Driving down the highway

In the ten-day pilot project, two trucks, hauling freight and trailers from Wilson Logistics, a 48-state trucking and logistics company, were deployed via Locomation’s autonomous relay technology on a 420-mile route that stretched from Portland, Oregon, to Nampa, Idaho, along Interstate 84, which has some of the most challenging road conditions in terms of curvatures, grades and wind gusts. 

The trucks were engaged autonomously approximately half the time, disengaging for situations like construction zones and parking, as well as challenges posed by different light situations, Meriçli told FreightWaves. 

A safety engineer was tasked with monitoring vehicle and AV system performance, collecting more than two dozen key performance indicators. “Now we know the limits of the technology,” Meriçli said, “and we have valuable data to improve the system.”

For the pilot, safety drivers were behind the wheel in both trucks. But the ultimate goal involves having a lead driver only in the first truck, thus extending the hours the trucks can be on the road. 

When the system is fully operational, and only one driver is needed, the two trucks will be able to complete a round trip of close to 900 miles in a single day, allowing shippers to move twice as much cargo in the same amount of time, Meriçli said.

Meriçli declined to identify the shipper, saying only that much of the haul was toilet paper — fitting cargo for a COVID-19 pilot project, he observed.

Truck platooning: a primer

There are several types of trucking platooning, said Steven Shladover, a research engineer and project manager at PATH, an intelligent vehicles group housed at University of California, Berkeley. The most basic form of platooning involves having drivers in every truck and only automating the speed control of the one to two trucks trailing the leader.

Earlier this summer the federal government awarded a truck platooning project to PATH that will study the benefits of this basic kind of platooning. It is also the same concept that Peloton, another platooning company, has been working on for years.

Locomation’s pilot involves a more advanced form of truck platooning, one that reduces the labor costs significantly for the truck fleet operator but introduces much more difficult technical challenges, according to Shladover.

The trailing truck or trucks need to be capable of automated driving and maintaining safety under a wide range of potential failures and driving hazards, “which is extremely difficult to achieve and to prove,” he told FreightWaves.

Second-generation platooning also requires regulatory changes, which will differ from state to state. It’s not yet clear what national regulatory issues may be involved.

Peloton, which is also working on as a second-generation product, was not immediately available for comment, a spokesperson told FreightWaves.

The human element

Drawing a distinction between its convoy technology and full autonomy, Meriçli said the former still allows for the “superior understanding and capability of human drivers.” Even on the interstate, driving conditions are challenging, and human drivers are “integral” to the health and safety of the operation, he said.

Then there’s the fact that truck platooning technology may be easier to scale.

The Locomation-Wilson Logistics partnership is part of a long term alliance that will ultimately deliver more than 1,000 two-truck convoys representing more than 2,000 trucks operating on more than 68 routes nationwide, the company said.

“We don’t want to take another 10 years before giving back to the community,” Meriçli said. 

At full commercialization, Locomation’s technology is expected to produce an estimated 30% reduction in operating cost per mile, according to Locomation. That includes an 8% reduction in fuel consumption, and removal of over 40 metric tons of carbon dioxide from the air per convoy annually.

Related stories:

TuSimple launches ‘5G network’ for autonomous trucking

Kodiak Robotics releases safety report on self-driving technology

Click here for more articles by Linda Baker.

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Linda Baker, Senior Environment and Technology Reporter

Linda Baker is a FreightWaves senior reporter based in Portland, Oregon. Her beat includes autonomous vehicles, the startup scene, clean trucking, and emissions regulations. Please send tips and story ideas to lbaker@freightwaves.com.
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