Locomation, an autonomous trucking startup headquartered in Portland, Oregon, today revealed it successfully completed its first on-road pilot transporting commercial freight. In partnership with risk management consultancy Aon and Wilson Logistics, a Springfield, Missouri-based transportation logistics company, Locomation deployed two trucks hauling trailers in a driverless convoy on a 420-mile-long route stretching from Portland to Nampa, Idaho along I-84.
Some experts predict the coronavirus outbreak will hasten the adoption of autonomous delivery solutions like Locomation’s. A study published by CarGurus found that 39% of people won’t use manually driven ride-sharing services post-pandemic for fear of insufficient sanitation. Despite the public’s misgivings about self-driving cars and their need for regular disinfection, they promise to minimize the risk of spreading disease because they inherently limit driver-rider contact.
During the eight-day pilot, Locomation-retrofitted trucks covered approximately 3,400 miles and operated autonomously roughly half of the time, delivering 14 commercial loads. At all times during the trips, each truck was staffed with a trained driver and a safety engineer tasked with monitoring vehicle and autonomous system performance, collecting more than “two dozen” key performance indicators.
Locomation’s system isn’t entirely autonomous. As opposed to truly driverless technologies pursued by Waymo, Embark, TuSimple, Ike, Einride, and others, it requires at least one driver to be alert and in control at all times. This driver — the lead driver — pilots a truck while a follower truck with another driver operates 50 feet to 80 feet behind in tandem. The idea is to allow the tandem operator to rest and recuperate during long routes across the country; the U.S. Department of Transportation mandates that drivers spend no more than 11 hours driving after a 10-hour break.
Locomation believes this paradigm faces comparatively few impediments to adoption. MIT’s Task Force on the Work of the Future suggested in a recent report that fully driverless systems will take at least a decade to deploy over large areas and that expansion will happen region-by-region in specific transportation categories, resulting in variations in availability across the country. And momentum at the federal level regarding autonomous vehicle regulations remains largely stalled. The DOT’s recently announced Automated Vehicles 4.0 (AV 4.0) guidelines only request assessments of self-driving vehicle safety and permit those assessments to be completed by automakers rather than by standards bodies.
Locomation rivals like Peloton Technology are experimenting with similar approaches, which studies show can yield substantial fuel cost savings. (As an added benefit, lead truck drivers can interact with law enforcement and first responders if the need arises.) Daimler, Volvo, MAN Truck and Bus, and Scania have deployed on-road prototypes with customers like FedEx and UPS, in part because of the low legal barrier to entry. Commercial “platooning” (as it’s called) is approved in 27 U.S. states, encompassing over 80% of annual truck traffic.
Locomation, which was founded in 2018 by autonomy experts from the National Robotics Engineering Center at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute, plans to expand the Wilson collaboration to 124 tractors in two-truck convoys on 11 segments throughout the U.S. at peak. The next phase in the partnership anticipates delivering more than 1,000 convoys representing more than 2,000 trucks operating on more than 68 segments nationwide.
Locomation CEO Çetin Meriçli says full commercialization of Locomation’s technology could happen as soon as 2022. He expects it to reduce operating cost per mile by 33% and fuel expense by 8% while removing 41 metric tons of carbon dioxide from the air per tractor annually.
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