Autonomous trucking is poised to solve several long-term industrial issues, ranging from tight capacity and chronic truck parking shortages to the untenable toll of highway deaths involving heavy-duty trucks, and do so while delivering a potentially staggering wave of economic prosperity to supply chain participants for decades to come. In fact, it is becoming clearer by the day that autonomous trucks stand to revolutionize the velocity and efficiency of freight transportation in nearly every conceivable way, driving safety, yield and utilization in step-function increments to new heights.
As a result, the industry is booming with customers excited to see great strides on the way to full autonomy and developers of every variety chomping at the bit to safely solve complex problems each step of the way. One such company is Locomation, which has its sights set on delivering integrated autonomous driving technology into fleets’ existing operations safely and profitably from the start.
The first phase of Locomation’s autonomy solutions roadmap is referred to as Autonomous Relay Convoy (ARC), which they call a “force multiplier” that “holds the promise to double the revenue on ARC-engineered lanes and improve asset utilization by as much as 130%.” If this were to occur, the net profit for participating motor carriers would quadruple. This is so compelling that it cannot be ignored.
According to Locomation, success is found in two key parts: the ARC System that goes on the truck and the ARC autonomous freight network that drives the freight volume to convoy. Here is how the two parts work.
An ARC system consists of two SAE Level-4 autonomy-equipped trucks with one driver in each truck. Each driver with his or her own truck takes turns actively leading the convoy, fully engaged in the function of driving, while the driver in the follower truck rests, off the clock, while his or her truck does the driving in autonomous follower mode. This human-guided phase of the company’s four-step approach to autonomous trucking allows for step-by-step progression without compromising the safety of the drivers, others on the road or the loads.
The ARC autonomous freight network consists of loads moving on segments of the U.S. interstate system that are inherently well-suited for Autonomous Relay Convoys. While there are 65 interstate systems across the nation, the top 25 account for 88% of all freight flow. Locomation identified 68 unique 500-mile sections of those 25 interstates on which to deploy its technology. About 530,000 tractors currently operate within these sections on a daily basis, according to Tom Kroswek, Locomation’s vice president of strategy and business development.
Once the trucks have traveled 500 miles, they can continue another 500 miles forward or unload and reload before making the 500-mile return trip. This creates a natural point of exchange for the drivers, allowing the leader driver to become the follower who rests on the second half of the trip.
Locomation has created ARC technology that can operate 20 to 22 hours per day in this convoying activity, doubling a driver’s standard 11 on-duty driving hours under current U.S. Department of Transportation hours-of-service rules. This scenario alone generates substantial improvements in asset and driver utilization and cost savings.
“Carriers normally average about 80% loaded miles, 10% empty miles and 10% deadhead miles,” Kroswek said. “Anything flowing within the ARC network would be loaded 100% of the time, eliminating the cost of empty miles and deadhead miles.”
The company has found that its ARC routes — fueled by its freight optimization services — can lead to operating margin improvements as high as 30% and utilization increases of up to 130% for carriers. Additionally, the ARC network provides greater flexibility and predictability for shippers, allowing them to manage their schedules more efficiently and avoid last-minute price hikes.
Autonomous Relay Convoys aren’t just about putting money back in pockets, though. They are designed to get drivers home more often. In the early stages of implementation, Kroswek expects carriers embracing ARCs will be able to get drivers home for a small portion of each day. Over time, he expects drivers to be home as much as 50% of the time without sacrificing pay in the process. With home time consistently touted as one of the drivers’ biggest concerns, this shift should lead to higher driver retention for carriers.
In addition to flexibility and price savings, the ARC network provides impressive environmental benefits.
“When we put together these convoys, there is the potential to eliminate more than 40 metric tons of CO2 based on reduced fuel consumption,” Kroswek said. “We’re changing the way transportation fundamentally operates.”
Despite all the perks, the Autonomous Relay Convoy approach represents a significant change for the industry. While players across the supply chain have been more enthusiastic about tech in recent years, growing pains and initial trepidation are expected side effects of innovation.
“Change is always a challenge, but this is an adaptation of the operating model of most carriers. The way we are looking to deploy this is a paradigm shift in the way they would utilize this technology,” Kroswek said. “Once we explain the value in equipment utilization and driver retention, carriers are typically very excited about adopting this technology.”
Locomation owns the following trademarks and service marks: Autonomous Relay Convoy, ARC, Human-Guided Autonomy and On the Road to Full Autonomy.