By Dr. Çetin Meriçli, CEO and Co-founder of Locomation.
Concerns about the nation’s supply-chain are making headlines and raising concerns from Main Street to the White House. Parents worry about not having holiday gifts for their children after a stressful and strenuous year, and some worry that sectors dependent on foreign technology may be backlogged for many months. As we think about how to loosen up America’s constricted freight transportation system, accelerating the widespread deployment of autonomous trucks should be a priority.
Unlike most of today’s supply-chain issues which will be worked out over time, the trucking industry has deeper structural and demographic issues that will require innovative problem solving and new technology, including deployment of autonomous trucks.
Even before the pandemic, there was already a major shortage of truckers. There are nearly 2 million long-haul truck drivers in the U.S. today, and the American Trucking Associations estimates there is a shortage of over 80,000—that’s the entire population of cities like Sioux City, Iowa, Bloomington, Indiana, or Mission, Texas—and is estimated to top 160,000 by 2028. That estimate was done before freight demands skyrocketed and new trends in e-commerce accelerated due to COVID.
These are tough, blue collar jobs with long hours away from home that impact families, especially those with young children. Because of this, the average commercial truck driver chooses trucking later in life. About 60% of new truck drivers are older than 40, 33% are older than 50, and a little more than over 10% of truckers retire or leave the occupation every year.
Fewer young people have been getting into the trucking industry, especially to become long-haul drivers, and this will affect the supply-chain for the foreseeable future.
This is where autonomous trucking can play a big role. Locomation is on track to deploy our technology around the country next year—becoming the first company to achieve this—using an approach we call human-guided autonomy. The Locomation solution today uses human-led, two-truck autonomous relay convoys with two drivers. Once on the freeway, one driver operates the lead truck while the second truck follows in autonomous mode, with that driver resting off the clock. Periodically, the trucks swap leader and follower roles, allowing the drivers to take turns leading the convoy and sleeping.
This model allows the linked convoy to operate for 22 hours continuously under current Hours of Service (HOS) regulations, meaning twice the cargo, twice as far, twice as fast. Carriers and shippers can double their capacity without adding a single new driver or truck, which means reduced costs for consumers and new growth potential for the entire economy.
At full operational strength, our system will cut annual operating costs by 15%, reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 22%, and increase at-home time for drivers, enabling them to get back for kids’ baseball games and school plays.
Because Locomation’s system keeps humans in the lead driver’s seat, it can be deployed sooner. Our system is substantially safer because our autonomous driving system is also the best co-pilot in the world, augmenting the human driver and reducing road hazards wherever they occur. Our autonomous trucks don’t need to interpret and react to every unforeseeable situation on the road, they simply need to follow the human-driven lead truck as it changes lanes or speed.
Locomation’s solution for human-guided autonomy complies with current federal and state regulations and will add to our customers’ fleet capacity in the near term. To reach the longer-term goal of widespread deployment of single-truck/full autonomy, the states and the federal government can help fix the supply-chain by bringing consistency and clarity to the patchwork of autonomous trucking requirements. In particular, any broad standard for autonomous vehicles should depend on an independently assessed, provable safety case. Congress should set timelines for the speedy enactment of federal regulations to clarify the standards.
These changes will help accelerate the day when autonomous trucks can help fix the nation’s broken supply-chain, reduce costs of goods for consumers, and improve family dynamics for drivers.