Locomation signs up third trucking company to test autonomous technology

LAS VEGAS — Locomation’s autonomous vehicle technology now has a third trucking company as a partner.

Using the occasion of the Truckload Carriers Association annual meeting in Las Vegas as a backdrop, Cetin Mercli, Locomation’s co-founder and CEO, announced Monday that Christenson Transportation had signed on to conduct pilot tests of its technology.

Christenson is based in Stafford, Missouri. At the press conference announcing the signing, Don Christenson, CEO of the company that bears his family name, said the pilot would involve lanes out of the company’s Nashville, Tennessee, hub of about 500 miles in length along Interstates 40, 24 and 65.

At the press conference were representatives of the two other companies that have signed on with Locomation: Wilson Logistics, which was the first company to do so, and flatbed operator PGT Trucking.

Wilson Logistics had been testing Locomation’s technology in its western operations, which it sold to Ashley Furniture late last year. On March 10, Wilson Logistics and Locomation announced the carrier had agreed to an extension of its original agreement with Locomation and would deploy the company’s Autonomous Relay Convoy (ARC) system in 1,120 vehicles in the Midwest.

Locomation describes the ARC system as “a human-led convoy of two trucks that are electronically tethered.” There is a driver in the lead truck and a second driver in the following truck who is considered off-duty for hours-of-service purposes. If they both can drive 11 hours per day, that projects out to a 22-hour day for the truck. 

Christenson said discussions with Locomation began at the TCA’s September gathering in Las Vegas. For Christenson Transportation, the goal was “to bring autonomy to us in a way that it doesn’t have to be a negative for our driving force. It will have a positive impact on the quality of life for our drivers.”

There was no talk at the press conference about the Locomation technology in its first phase displacing drivers. 

“We’ve got the real estate in place to start the program when Locomation is ready,” Christenson said. He added that the company is confident enough in the technology that he believes Christenson will have the ARC technology in 100% of its vehicles “in the next few years.”

The goal will be to change the current operating model at Christenson so that the trucks can run more than 20 hours per day. In the first pilots, about 500 trucks will be equipped to operate the ARC technology. 

In both the press conference and the prepared statement announcing the Christenson Transportation-Locomation deal, CEO Christenson gave specific numbers on improvements it is expecting: capacity up by 52%, empty miles down 50% and 18% improved fuel efficiency. Operating costs are expected to drop 30%, and in the lanes where the trucks will operate in the pilot, profits are expected to quadruple.  

Christenson said his company was looking to sign on to “something we thought was going to come to market sooner rather than later.” He said Christenson Transportation was not looking to “force the driver out of the cab on day one.”

But Christenson said he believes Locomation’s technology will produce a wide variety of benefits that ultimately will produce one of the most important goals for a carrier today: “building capacity.” And with that, drivers aren’t going anywhere, he said. “We leave the element of the driver in the truck during the initial phase as we move forward.” 

Phase two would involve platooning, with one driver and two trucks, with the second truck riding behind the lead vehicle and without a driver at the wheel. 

Wilson Logistics was represented at the press conference by Bruce Stockton, the company’s vice president of Fleet Services. He noted that the sale of the West Coast operations to Ashley Furniture cut the size of Wilson’s fleet in half but that the company now has pivoted to bringing the ARC technology to its Midwest operations.

Wilson Logistics’ Dallas terminal has been set up to be the base of operations for a pilot that will focus on Interstates 44 and 35 through Oklahoma and Texas, Stockton said. 

Stockton described the West Coast pilots on Interstate 5 as “successful,” but said there’s more work to be done to get the Midwest pilots launched. “We intend to adopt that same technology that we tested on the West Coast,” he said. “But let’s be clear. It has to prove itself, it has got to work.” 

He declined to put a timeline on when the Midwest pilot might begin.

Mericli said Locomation has its own fleet of 12 trucks that are being used for testing, with another 20 trucks set to be added. 

He said the deal with Christenson would call for working on the technology with the company through this year with “preproduction pilots” next year. 

The autonomous vehicle model calls for improvements in a long list of areas — driver retention, safety and fuel efficiency head the list. But as Andrew Erin, representing PGT Trucking at the press conference, noted, the shippers that use it also can get a benefit.

Erin said the prospect of lower emissions is finding an audience with shippers. Many of them have committed to a zero-carbon footprint for some date in the future — he mentioned 2050 — and having their goods hauled by a vehicle with autonomous trucking technology can help bring them closer to that goal. 

“We tell them, ‘We’re going to be able to help reduce your scope 3 emissions,’ and as a shipper they are real interested in hearing that,” Erin said. 

Scope 3 emissions are produced by an emitter doing work for an entity, like a carrier hauling goods for a manufacturer.

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Source: freightwaves - Locomation signs up third trucking company to test autonomous technology
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