Trucks Are Winning Automation Race

Britain and America may be two nations divided by a common language, but they face the same problem: a shortage of lorry drivers and truck drivers.

During the pandemic, supply chain disruptions, hoarding, and e-commerce led to greater demand for freight carriers. The UK Road Haulage Association estimates a shortage of 100,000 drivers due to the pandemic and Brexit. Prior to the pandemic, the American Trucking Association estimated that the United States needs another 61,000 truckers, and ATA chief economist Bob Costello told me that he believes that the number is higher today.

With low levels of unemployment, 9 million job openings, and employers competing for workers, many people prefer jobs where they can go home to their families every night. But truckers often spend days or weeks away from home.

Truckers’ pay is rising as companies try to attract more drivers. And as labor costs and inflation surge, and consumers continue their pandemic e-commerce habits, technology is coming to the rescue with automated trucks.

Companies such as Aurora, Waymo, Embark, TuSimple, Plus, and Locomation are all testing autonomous trucks, and Walmart, Target, and Amazon as well as other large retailers are potential purchasers.

Some say that self-driving cars are just around the corner, but driverless trucks will probably be with us first. The advantage of autonomous technology in trucks rather than cars is that trucks travel on fixed routes, generally on major highways, rather than through city traffic. Driving for miles on a highway is easier than navigating in cities.

Cities have more cars travelling at variable speeds, as well as manual and electric bicycles and scooters, pedestrians who can suddenly step off the curb, and children who might dash out to retrieve a ball or follow a pet. This makes driving difficult for regular cars, as well as driverless ones.

Locomation, a venture-funded company founded in 2018 and headquartered in Pittsburgh, was started by five robotics engineers from Carnegie Mellon. Locomation has tripled its employment over the past year, and now employs 62 people, mostly from the trucking and engineering world. Its engineers have also worked on recent generations of Mars rovers, and different vehicles for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Locomation is pioneering truck convoying, where two trucks follow each other closely on the road. The first truck has an active driver, and the second one is operating autonomously. The second truck has a driver who is not needed to operate the vehicle once on the freeway, so could be sleeping or resting, Finch Fulton, Locomation’s Vice President of Policy and Strategy, told me.

The technology that Locomation installs on trucks uses radar and other sensors to keep the right distance apart. Connected vehicle technology ensures that the follower truck, travelling without driver guidance, brakes at the same time as the leader truck.

When the driver in the leading vehicle has driven for the period of time permitted by  Transportation Department rules, or simply wants a break, the driver in the autonomous truck takes over driving operations. The follower truck pulls up in front of the leader truck, and becomes the leader. The former leader then becomes the following autonomous truck. The driver who needs to rest sleeps, and the fresh driver takes over the convoy.

This technology enables the two trucks to travel over 20 hours a day, rather than 11 hours a day for one truck and one driver.

Rather than waiting for completely autonomous trucks, the convoy model allows for faster deployment.  In future years Locomation plans to have a truck following without a driver in it, and then for trucks to be able to move between hubs and docks with no drivers present.

Locomation plans on deploying at the end of 2022 and has purchase orders from two companies, who are buying a total of 2,120 systems to be mounted on their trucks.

One important question is whether the driver in the autonomous following truck can be considered to be off duty. That requires clarification by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration of the Department of Transportation.

Unlike airlines, public transit, passenger rail, and taxis, the use of freight transportation has risen during the pandemic. As people worked at home and moved out of cities to suburbs, they purchased different types of goods and increased online ordering. Some of this is here to stay, not just in the United States but around the world. Let’s hope that the trucks and lorries—with and without drivers—will keep up with the new demand.

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