Autonomous vehicle startup Locomation and 1,000-truck, 48-state carrier Wilson Logistics have successfully completed an eight-day trial of a new semi-autonomous truck-convoy technology that transported 14 commercial loads between Portland, Oregon and Nampa, Idaho.
In what the company calls an Autonomous Relay Convoy (ARC), two tractor-trailers operate in a convoy or tandem configuration (platooning). A human driver is at the wheel of the lead truck, while the following truck is operated by Locomation's proprietary fully autonomous control system. The autonomous following truck had a safety driver in the left seat all times, and an engineer in the right seat monitoring vehicle parameters during the test. The ARC operated autonomously roughly half of the time, covering about 3,400 miles, according to Locomation.
"The successful kickoff of this commercial agreement with Wilson Logistics [first announced at the Truckload Carriers Association annual conference in March] is a significant milestone for our teams," said Dr. Çetin Meriçli, CEO and co-founder of Locomation. "Most importantly, the pilot strongly proved that our autonomous technology can be integrated seamlessly and deployed within a real trucking operation in a sustained fashion."
Wilson Logistics, led by Darrel Wilson, one of HDT's 2020 Truck Fleet Innovators, sees such technology as an ideal way of advancing truck safety while reducing fuel consumption and lowering labor costs.
“This test pilot was critical for Wilson Logistics, because it proves the true commercial viability of Locomation's ARC technology,” said Wilson, chairman and CEO. "For our team, it’s the perfect combination of safety improvements, increased asset utilization, reduced cost per mile – and most importantly, a better driver experience."
Wilson told HDT in an interview for the HDT Talks Trucking podcast that if the ARC concepts proves itself, "There will probably be a time when the driver in the rear truck can be off duty, and when the front driver runs out of hours they swap spots."
When fully commercialized, Locomation estimates its autonomous vehicle technology could produce an estimated 30% reduction in operating costs per mile, including an 8% reduction in fuel consumption, which would remove more than 40 metric tons of carbon dioxide from the air per convoy annually.
With the first steps behind them, Locomation and Wilson plan to continue deploying the system on real routes as they build toward a sustained operation.
"Our goal is to get to a low-volume commercial deployment in early 2022, so in about 18 months, 20 months from today," Meriçli told HDT. The copany will be looking beyond this pilot project to actually growing and rolling out the first commercial units, he added, which will use Wilson Logistics customers, drivers and trucks, with the trucks equipped with Locomation's ARC technology. For the Oregon-Idaho pilot, trucks owned and operated by Locomation pulled Wilson's trailers.
How Locomation's Autonomous Convoy Works
Meriçli says the company concluded early on that eliminating human drivers from the cab in one shot was unrealistic. He acknowledged that human drivers are deeply involved in the transportation workflow and much more than passive steering-wheel holders.
"We felt the right way to start bringing autonomy to the industry is human guided, with a human driver in front truck, but we make the second truck drive itself," he said. "This way, there are great efficiency gains. You can ship twice as much cargo twice as far and twice as fast."
Presently, the first truck in the ARC has SAE Level 2 functionality, mostly used as driver assistance or augmentation. It's equipped with some of the sensors found on the follow truck, which is Level-4-autonomous capable, but it takes its cues from a combination of prescribed routing and following the vehicle ahead. Basically, it knows where it's supposed to go and it can go there, but it doesn't have to worry as much about traffic and other environmental factors.
It's equipped with an advanced adaptive cruise control system that allows the vehicle to maintain a close following distance of about 20 feet, Wilson told HDT. It's fully capable of steering, braking and accelerating on its own, and it's in constant data contact with the lead truck via a dedicated short-range communication system (which is not the same DSRC often discussed in relation to V2V and V2I interfacing.)
The human driver is still responsible for all the navigation and routing choices as well as traffic avoidance, which leaves the autonomy a much lighter workload.
"The follower is technically a level-four truck, but it does not have to handle all the 'long tails' in the world – the long tail parts are still being handled by the human driver in the front, making the life of the autonomy easier," Meriçli explained. "That enables us to focus on the parts of full autonomy that can be sold today, leaving only the parts that require further development and further validation for tomorrow. It basically pushes the boundaries a little bit, but not to the extent that we are completely trying to change the way trucking operates today."
We asked Meriçli about a couple of edge-case scenarios, rare but possible occurrences that still need to be accounted for, such as the driver of the lead truck falling asleep and driving off the road. Does the following truck follow the lead truck out into the rhubarb, or does it recognize the problem and assume control before coming to a safe stop?
"The proper driver assistance technology in the lead truck will probably help alleviate that, such as driver monitoring," he responded. "And there has to be a protocol for the follower to decide when to follow the road versus when to follow the lead driver. So, under normal circumstances, unless dictated otherwise, the follower will follow the route, not the lead driver. Only when the lead driver has to do something voluntary and unexpected, maybe the lead driver will have to signal to the follower to say, 'Okay, so now follow me explicitly.' Then we anticipate the follower would veer off and go wherever the lead track is going.
"This is an interesting edge case that's fairly improbable to begin with, but we are working on scenarios that will help us handle them and mitigate them," he added.
Both trucks in the pilot are equipped with appropriate redundant systems that can step in should there be a system failure – including, first and foremost, safety drivers. Meriçli admited there are still some challenges to be worked out, such as operating on hilly or winding roads. For example, when climbing and descending hills, the trucks may not be matched weight-wise, which would cause the heavier truck to ascend more slowly and descend faster than the lighter truck. Highway curves can be challenging for much the same reasons, where the trucks' centers of gravity might be different.
Locomation chose the 420-mile I-84 corridor between Portland and Nampa for a number of reasons, including freight density, cooperative weather, cooperative regulatory support, and of course the additional challenge the geography presents. Engineers felt that even while operating manually through those difficult segments, they would be better able to collect data and build understanding on how the system would have reacted.
"Obviously, we are not going to test in Oregon in the middle of winter when Deadman Pass is under 8 feet of snow," Meriçli joked. "Wilson has activities in all 48 states and in different densities. With time and with our other future partners, we will be looking to test in different parts of the country, including Arizona and Texas where all the usual suspects are, as well as our home state of Pennsylvania."
The Driver's Role
As we have noted, at this stage in the development, each truck has a driver and a safety engineer onboard. The driver in the lead truck is actively steering the truck and watching for traffic, hazards, etc. – doing what any driver would do normally. The driver in the follow truck is not actively engaged in controlling the truck, except in scenarios like hills and curves where the system might currently be in over its head.
Meriçli sees this eventually working like a team driver scenario, but rather than two drivers on a single truck, you have two drivers on two trucks. The following driver can take advantage of the autonomy and log time in the sleeper berth.
Since these drivers could conceivably be going on- and off-duty multiple times during a trip, certain exemptions from hours-of-service rules may be needed. He thinks the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration will support the idea.
"FMCSA is already moving towards a more flexible management of hours of operations that's mainly fueled by the recent mandate of electronic logging devices," he pointed out. "For the first time now, FMCSA actually has access to the driver activities and how long a particular driver has been driving, all in great digital detail. I think that will enable them to be a little bit more flexible around the hours of service management."
Locomation expects to have exemptions in place within "the next couple of quarters" tied to specific fleet partners, such as Wilson Logistics. "We anticipate that we will [eventually] have broader exemptions specific to our technology but not tied to a particular fleet, so anyone using the technology can benefit from the exemption," Meriçli predicted.
For his part, Wilson Logistics CEO Darren Wilson see this as the next evolution in trucking industry safety.
"The trucks can certainly drive themselves more safely and in most cases more efficiently than human drivers, but there's still a driver aboard just in case," he told HDT. "At some point, if this proves out as adopted, there's probably a time that the driver in the rear truck can be off duty And when the front driver runs out of hours they swap spots, which will improve fleet utilization to to some extent while helping to reduce labor costs."
He said the company hasn't yet decided how they will pay drivers to operate these trucks, for essentially sleeping in this case, but noted that it will be a premium job.
"There's a lot of efficiencies here, so we see this as an opportunity to raise driver pay closer to where it needs to be," Wilson said.
Wilson Logistics' risk management consultancy Aon also participated in the pilot program in order to assess a range of metrics related to safety.
"We congratulate Wilson Logistics and Locomation on a successful initial test phase," said Mark Brockinton, CEO of Aon’s Transportation and Logistics Practice. "We are thrilled with the performance of the pilot and its safe, on-time deliveries each day. We think Locomation’s platform points to a future for freight carriers where risk factors related to accident and loss are significantly lower."
The Locomation-Wilson Logistics agreement will initially operate more than 124 ARC-equipped tractors in two-truck convoys on 11 ARC segments throughout the United States at peak implementation. The next phase in the partnership anticipates delivering more than 1,000 two-truck convoys representing more than 2,000 ARC-equipped trucks operating on more than 68 ARC segments nationwide.