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Truck Talk: Autonomous hitching edition

Automation extends beyond robot trucks on the highway

FreightWaves regularly covers the six startups pursuing Level 4 high autonomy on the road. This week, we’re looking at autonomy from a different perspective. What happens when those trailers get to their destinations?

Getting hitched

The 10 billion tons of freight moved in trailers could eventually whisk down the highway via robot. Then what happens?  

Outrider Inc. CEO Andrew Smith offered his perspective on how automating freight and distribution yards will soon include touchless hitching and unhitching of trailers.  

“Our system is designed to fully autonomously move trailers around distribution yards,” he told me, waving off a question about teleoperation. “We have the ability to remotely support our system, but there’s no one monitoring our system on a daily basis.

“With the click of a button and the power of electricity, we can move millions of tons of freight back and forth between parking areas and loading docks or between different buildings on an industrial campus that had never been done autonomously before.”

When up and running, the hitching portion will dramatically lessen human error in missing a mechanical connection to a fifth wheel.

How the Outrider autonomous hitching system works.

“Essentially, our system is hitching perfectly every time and actually calculates the right amount of force that’s needed to scoop a trailer so you’re causing a lot less damage to a trailer and the landing gear of the trailer on a daily basis in the distribution yard.”

Pinch points of congestion

Freight yards are pinch points of congestion that can spill over into warehouses and distribution centers.

“While there have been a handful of improvements on how distribution yards have worked, they’ve mainly worked the same way for the last several decades,” Smith said.

“Essentially, our system is hitching perfectly every time and actually calculates the right amount of force that’s needed to scoop a trailer so you’re causing a lot less damage to a trailer and the landing gear of the trailer on a daily basis in the distribution yard.”

Andrew Smith, CEO, Outrider Inc.

He founded Outrider in 2017 after selling ATDynamics, another company he founded, to the Stemco subsidiary of EnPro Industries (NYSE: NPO) in 2015. ATDynamics introduced aerodynamic trailer components like side skirts, trailer tails and other wind-defeating technologies to improve fuel efficiency in the mid-2000s.

“That company gave a lot of exposure to inefficiencies in the supply chain and a recognition that there were huge opportunities for efficiency, safety and sustainability improvements in how we operate the yard.”

From the beginning, Smith focused on automating battery-powered yard tractors. He didn’t want to deal with diesel for environmental and efficiency reasons. Electric charging for short movements, such as repositioning trailers, immediately lowers total cost of ownership because the vehicles cumulatively don’t go very far in a single day. And, of course, they don’t pollute.

3 questions

FreightWaves: How does this technology fit with the movement toward Level 4 hub-to-hub transport?

Smith: “Outrider provides a critical link in the vision for autonomous trucking. We are that seamless autonomous link between what happens in the warehouse and that over-the-road autonomous truck. Our system is designed to fully autonomously move trailers around distribution yards.”

FreightWaves: Are you anticipating meeting autonomous trucks at the gate of the depot? 

Smith: “We are the link between trailers and the loading docks of distribution centers and where they get dropped off. Because we are on private property, we can do some mapping and site infrastructure to allow us to deploy safe Level 4 systems more easily than an over-the-road trucking company. 

Autonomous hitching of trailers to fifth wheels is Outrider’s goal. (Photo: Outrider)

“But we have the whole wealth of complexity that has to do with connecting to and from the trailers, maneuvering these trailers autonomously in a confined environment, high-precision backing of trailers, interaction with loading docks and integrated control of all yard activity with a warehouse management cloud-based software system. In many customer facilities, a trailer might go through four moves with a yard truck before it reconnects with an over-the-road truck.”

FreightWaves: Is this all leading to an eventual fully driverless enterprise?

Smith: As autonomous trucking evolves, you will see goods moving solely from one point to another autonomously with technologies taking over different links of the supply chain. Even when that’s happening, there will still be a certain level of human oversight. You don’t have to have one-to-one matchups, but you always have humans looking over the system and dealing with anomalies just like you have a robotic factory floor filled with technicians assisting the system where it needs it.

Autonomous yard tractor positions a trailer at a doc. (Photo: Outrider)

Future outlook

Outrider has raised $118 million so far and has 140 employees. It has attracted top FreightTech investors in each of its three fundraising rounds to date. Venture capital firm New Enterprise Associates led the seed round; Eight Partners VC (also an investor in FreightWaves) led the A round and Koch Disruptive Technologies led the B round.

Outrider has nine Fortune 500 customers. It is public only with one: Atlanta-based pulp and paper company Georgia Pacific. Others that Smith declined to name include consumer packaged goods, large package delivery, manufacturing and e-commerce businesses.

“We’re in various stages of pilot deployment but at this point in time, there are nine customers converting to doing essentially fully autonomous production operations in specific areas of yards at this point in time. We still have a high level of oversight on our systems, but the system is doing actual production work.

“There is massive interest, especially after this last year of the pandemic, in enhancing the efficiency and the resiliency of the supply chain.”

What about public ownership, such as through a special purpose acquisition company or other means?

“Outrider is an extremely high-growth company. And we are always evaluating our options to continue our rapid growth in supporting the thousands of autonomous yard trucks on the market,” Smith said.

Gartner Inc. took notice last September, naming Outrider one of its “Cool Vendors in Supply Chain Technology.”

“Since yards have often been overlooked as an area to improve processes in and apply technology, this forms a great opportunity for automation,” Gartner analyst Bart De Muynck wrote. “There are over 50,000 yard trucks in North America, representing an estimated $7.5 billion opportunity to automate this fleet of vehicles.”

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Truck Talk took a different approach this week with a single feature. Like it? Prefer the regular diet of shorter pieces?  Drop me a note at [email protected] and let me know. Subscribe here to get Truck Talk delivered by email on Fridays.

See you next week.


Alan Adler

Alan Adler is an award-winning journalist who worked for The Associated Press and the Detroit Free Press. He also spent two decades in domestic and international media relations and executive communications with General Motors.