Autonomous vehicles have been a hot topic in the transportation industry for years. As technology continues to evolve and regulation talks take off among lawmakers, special purpose acquisition companies (SPACs) seem to be shifting their financial focus away from electric vehicles and toward self-driving truck startups. With trucking demand expected to surge in lockstep with e-commerce growth, autonomous vehicles offer an innovative solution for an industry with an already strained workforce.
Whenever autonomous vehicles come up in conversation, questions surrounding safety and profitability inevitably take center stage. Early entrants into the space have a unique opportunity to create solutions addressing those widespread concerns, shaping the future of transportation as it unfolds. Autonomous standout Locomation has focused on making these new vehicles both safe and cost effective since entering the space in 2018.
“We are tracking chronic and critical issues hurting the transportation industry. For us, it is all about using technology to respond to stakeholders’ needs in a safe and prudent way,” Locomation co-founder and CEO Çetin Meriçli said. “We are working to alleviate today’s pain points while preparing the supply chain for the future.”
Those pain points include widespread industry headaches like the driver squeeze, hours-of-service regulations and rejected loads. All these issues combined threaten the industry’s ability to flex with the market and meet growing demand. Autonomous trucking effectively solves for all of them at the same time. With autonomous solutions, humans will move more loads with the same resources. Additionally, machines do not require the same amount of downtime as humans in order to operate effectively.
Locomation is currently focused on human-guided autonomous solutions, while planning for a fully autonomous future. The company plans to reach full autonomy in four phases: autonomous relay convoys, drone followers, hub-to-hub, and finally dock-to-dock driverless solutions. The first phase — autonomous relay convoys — is scheduled for rollout in the second half of 2022.
The autonomous relay convoy phase consists of two trucks and two drivers, with the human driver of the first truck acting as a “superior cognitive filter” ahead of the following truck’s autonomous system and overseeing the overall convoy operation. This phased approach allows for step-by-step troubleshooting without compromising the safety of the drivers, others on the road or the loads. Locomation has found that its autonomous relay convoys — paired with freight optimization services — can lead to operating margin improvements as high as 30% and utilization increases of up to 130%.
“I keep going back to the idea that it is important to develop and apply autonomous solutions in a prudent and responsible way,” Meriçli said. “When an 80,000-pound truck is moving down the highway at 65 mph, reliability is very important. We need to have proven evidence that these solutions are safe.”
If the upcoming phase one rollout goes according to plan, Locomation hopes to move into phase two sometime in 2023, a quick but achievable cadence. In the second phase, the following truck will not be equipped with a human driver to intervene with its autonomous system.
While the company does not yet have a solidified timeline for phases three and four, the rate of technological innovation and current focus on legislation in the space suggest that a framework for these more autonomous, less human-centric movements will exist in the relatively near future. With this in mind, Meriçli challenged everyone in the transportation industry to shift into a more future-oriented mindset.