While fully autonomous long-haul driving may be a long way off, Locomation is offering an autonomous truck/human driver hybrid convoy solution. The company aims to be the first to deliver fully autonomous trucks.
Locomation’s CEO, Dr Çetin Meriçli, talks to Auto Futures about how Locomation works.
While at Carnegie Mellon’s National Robotics Engineering Center (NREC), tech companies were hiring away Meriçli’s colleagues. “Tech companies were poaching all my friends. Our founders did not go because we thought about autonomous driving from a different angle,” says Meriçli
Instead, he co-founded the Pittsburgh-based company with four Carnegie Mellon NREC faculty, engineers, researchers and scientists.
“We have experience in robotics from defence systems and all different aspects of autonomy. We went after the problem and started a new type of company. Locomation is designed to make money from the start.”
“We were looking at the future. Other autonomous companies were looking at moving people. We were seeing fewer people going places. We were looking at the transportation of goods. Then the pandemic happened. And it was obvious to everyone that freight was the biggest part needed for autonomy and middle-mile. But the way to do it is to start with human-guided convoys,” he says.
“We are creating an analysis and architecture that will work in the real world. We believe it is the faster way to make the product and be able to scale as we access more data.”
Convoying combines human drivers leading the way followed by a connected fully autonomous truck. While one human driver is driving, the other truck driver is resting in the autonomous truck.
“The following vehicle is watching the driver but has full control. It’s like if you’re following your friends to go to a restaurant. The driver in the second car may be talking to the person ahead of him but always is making decisions for himself,” says Meriçli.
Convoys Offer Advantages Over Single Truck Driving
There is 10% less friction for the second truck. The leading truck creates less turbulence behind it. Fuel savings for the lead truck is 5% and 8% for the follower truck.
The Locomation convoy system allows for 20 to 22 hours a day on the road. The first vehicle houses the driver. The driver in the second truck can sleep and rest according to rules. If there is an edge case, the fully autonomous truck can come safely to a stop. It allows for the assessment of what to do next, says Meriçli.
“By deploying our human-guided system. We actually will get through the validation of the technology for the fully driverless deployments sooner,” says Meriçli.
The Autonomous Relay Convoy (ARC) system includes tier-1 supplied autonomous operation intent steering, brake and powertrain, advanced autonomy software and secure radio communications between the vehicles. It uses radar and other sensors to keep the trucks the correct distance apart and radio communication to apply the brakes at the same time as the lead truck.
Locomation is expecting ARC to ship by Q4, 2022. The company announced contracts with Wilson Logistics and PGT Trucking for more than 2,100 ARC systems.
In October 2020, Locomation announced it is using the NVIDIA DRIVE AGX Orin autonomous vehicle computing platform.
The company recently celebrated its third anniversary. It expanded to offices in Pittsburgh’s Robotics Row and is moving into permanent garage space at the Transportation Research Center in East Liberty, Ohio.
So far, the truck drivers like the Locomation way of convoy driving.
“The majority of the drivers like it because it is a premium job. It is more comfortable. They have more home time. Safety has improved and the majority are enjoying it” says Meriçli.
“In the future, we will look at using the platform for automating other kinds of transportation.”
ARC meets federal guidelines that allow long-haul drivers to drive only 11 hours a day. Then the drivers usually either pull over or stop to sleep. In this system the rest vehicle is travelling full-time.
“Currently, the ARC system will work with different types of fuel. We are also able to support infrastructure when the trucks convert to clean fuel,” says Meriçli.
“We are the first company to offer fully autonomous driving at scale,” he adds.
“We have the expertise and teams with decades of experience, taking the time to make it all work and we are learning as we go,” says Meriçli, “We are looking to partner with more OEMs and technology companies to collaborate to make it go faster to scale up.”
After deploying the two-truck convoy system for highway driving, the next phase to full autonomy from Locomation is one driver with a drone follower, then driverless systems for hub-to-hub and dock-to-dock.
“The company is named Locomation because it comes from the words locomotion and automation. In the future, we will look at using the platform for automating other kinds of transportation which could be personal vehicles or shuttle buses.”
Meriçli sums up Locomation convoy advantages this way: “We are able to haul twice the amount of cargo, twice as far, twice as fast, while saving 30% on operating costs. And our customers agree us.”