Autonomous trucks see and interpret their environment through massive amounts of computer power. They communicate what they know and, more importantly, what they don’t know. They talk to their robot brethren, sharing changes in roadways and other unexpected things they encounter.
But how will they operate with dispatchers and transportation management systems designed to oversee their productivity, location and health? It is one of myriad challenges to solve before driverless trucks can make an impact in the freight-hauling world.
At the Manifest supply chain conference in Las Vegas, we asked a cross section of the industry what to expect.
The integration challenge
“At some point, there has to be something that tells the robot where to go and what to pick up,” Justin Bailie, co-founder of TMS provider Rose Rocket, told me before Manifest. “There has to be some digital interaction. The order is going to have to be managed through the process.”
Rose Rocket works with a couple of autonomous trucking startups Bailie declined to name because of nondisclosure agreements.
“We have a control center, which is basically a large map [with] all the truck dots. If we assume [it is] all humans except the driver, I think the TMS plays an increasingly critical role.”
Exercising in the yard
Andrew Smith, founder and CEO at Outrider, built his business around moving equipment autonomously in a confined space — the distribution yard.
“By linking the Outrider system to transportation management systems, we can preposition trailers with the autonomous yard trucks so that trucks coming in and out of the facility have shorter dwell times at the facility,” Smith said.
“Likewise, by making sure we’re getting a trailer to the right loading dock at the right time, we’re not going to have people backed up inside the warehouse waiting for the trailer.”
Outrider’s “mission control” web-based vehicle control application links to what companies are doing with their over-the-road trucks.
“By doing an autonomous yard, you’re also supercharging a transportation management system,” Smith said. “Our yard vehicles are mobile sensor platforms that are constantly confirming the real-time location of all the trailer assets from the yard.”
A fleet perspective
Trimble Inc.’s TMW is the predominant transportation management system for asset-based trucking companies like Covenant Logistics. Connecting with autonomous trucks commercially, is some time off, according to Matt McLelland, Covenant’s vice president of sustainability and mobility.
“The two companies that we’ve partnered with, we’re going to be able to start running freight really soon with their safety driver, their TMS,” McLelland said. “We’re sort of brokering the load to them. When you read about Waymo and (J.B.) Hunt and some of these other ones, they’re all operating today on the road … but they’re not actively hooked into the TMS.”
The OEM role
Getting the autonomous trucks they are creating connected to an existing TMS is critically important, said Joanna Buttler, head of the global autonomous trucking group for Daimler Truck North America.
“There’s multiple options to do that. Either you connect it to an API [application programming interface] or you develop a separate environment in parallel to it,” she told me at Manifest.
DTNA was an early adopter of Platform Science’s software that lets customers use third-party telematics and connectivity services directly from their trucks without installing aftermarket hardware.
“Right now we really haven’t had a chance to leverage and talk about synergies,. But that will be in the future,” Buttler said. “That could be a great way to integrate the autonomous applications.”
This is a subject worth keeping an eye on.
Solo ATV, we hardly knew ye
Solo Advanced Technology Vehicles, which had ambitious, if underfunded, designs on creating a 500-mile-plus Class 8 autonomous electric truck, is no more. Well, actually just the Solo AVT name is gone. Now it is going by Terraline, a more earthbound name befitting a revised mission of creating a human-driven electric truck.
Founded in 2021. it got some attention last year for its plans to build a ground-up battery-powered autonomous truck. Founder Graham Doorley poked legacy truck makers working on creating redundant chassis to accommodate driverless operations. He said a clean sheet approach was a better idea.
Now, Solo, er Terraline, is throttling back its ambitions.
“We have the opportunity to scale fast, accelerating the adoption of electrification across freight fleets today,” Doorley said in a news release announcing the Tangra LH1. “Our success has to be of our own making and can’t be predicated on the progress of autonomous technologies and regulations.”
Terraline could still pursue autonomy. But for now it appears to be riding the electrification wave throwing money at electric vehicle purchases.
Maybe the $40,000 incentive under the Inflation Reduction Act and California’s generous electric truck vouchers can supplant a lack of capital. Terraline raised $7 million in a seed round and has not said whether a Series A planned for last June ever closed.
The tightfisted venture capital environment might explain the lack of news on that front. Terraline said it plans to deploy test vehicles with customers this year.
Electric Trucks get recalled, too
Typically, the recall of a couple hundred trucks would fall below the safety news radar. There are exceptions, of course. Crashes. Injuries. Fires. Add the nascent electric truck population to the list.
Volvo Trucks North America is recalling 137 VNR Electric daycabs and sibling Mack Trucks is recalling 43 Mack LR battery-electric refuse models because the cabin heater relay may fail, causing the coolant heater to overheat. It could stay energized and in a no-flow or low-coolant level condition, catch fire. There is no warning of the condition.
Volvo and Mack said they have no reports of accidents, injuries or field reports for the issue, which affects 100% of the recalled trucks.
Volvo’s Europe Product Safety Committee flagged the issue in June 2021. It recommended a recall because the cabin heater was part of the platform shared with Volvo Group North America. In August 2021, Volvo Group NA decided to do its own investigation.
Mack finally filed defect notices with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in January. Owners will be notified in March. The fix is a software upgrade that trucks built after September don’t need.
The recall timing and conduct fits a foot-dragging pattern NHTSA laid out in fining Volvo Group $130 million as part of consent decree that came to light this week.
Plus begins driver-in autonomous testing in Germany
Autonomous trucking startup Plus, unique for its PlusDrive Highly Automated Driving Level 4 system constrained to operate as a Level 2+ driver assistance system, is starting public road testing in Germany with partner Iveco. Testing will expand to Austria, Italy and Switzerland in the coming months.
Shawn Kerrigan, a Plus co-founder and chief operating officer, answered a few questions.
Truck Tech: Will there still be safety drivers on board?
Kerrigan: Yes, the PlusDrive-enabled Iveco S-Way truck that is starting public road testing in Germany has a safety driver on board.
Truck Tech: How many trucks will be deployed initially?
Kerrigan: Public road testing will be done with a small number of trucks. But we are excited to use the data gathering to validate the operations of the PlusDrive-enabled Iveco trucks and start planning for the potential factory production.
Truck Tech: What is happening with natural gas-powered PlusDrive-equipped trucks announced in April 2021?
Kerrigan: We continue to collaborate with Iveco on natural gas-powered truck options in addition to diesel ones. In fact, we displayed a PlusDrive-enabled L4 Iveco S-Way CNG truck at IAA in September 2022. We will share more on these developments as we have more details.