Wilson Logistics signs on to platooning deal with Locomation

A Pittsburgh-based automation technology company has teamed up with Wilson Logistics, a 48-state trucking and logistics company, to launch an automated platooning initiative starting this spring.

Unlike prior demonstration projects, the alliance between Locomation and Wilson Logistics will be hauling freight for customers on standard commercial loads in a dry van.

Platooning is a form of truck movement whereby two trucks drive one behind the other, not physically tethered but with a technology system keeping the two in sync to various degrees. It allows the two of them to drive far closer to each other than in normal situations, thereby–at its most basic–allowing drafting to save fuel or in the case of the ultimate goal of the Locamation/Wilson alliance, the ability for one driver to be off duty while in the cab, extending the hours the trucks can be on the road.

The announcement of the alliance came at the recent Truckload Carriers Association annual meeting in Orlando. The self-described “rainmaker” on the deal was Spangenberg Partners, led by Glenn Spangenberg, who told FreightWaves his company’s job in the arrangement was “to identify the right fit with the right carrier and put together the master service agreement.”

As far as why his company ended up choosing Locomation as the provider of the autonomous technology and Wilson Logistics as the carrier, Spangenberg said “we just happened to fall in love with them.”

Platooning tests are not new. Where the Locomation/Wilson pairing believes it is different is that it will use Locomation’s autonomous vehicle technology to platoon two Wilson Logistics trucks in the early tests that are handling runs that would have been completed with standard practices otherwise.

Cetin Mericli is the co-founder and CEO of Locomation. He and several of his colleagues came out of the Carnegie Mellon autonomous vehicles research program.

Mericli said at Carnegie Mellon, he had been involved in providing the technology for Caterpillar autonomous mining vehicles.

According to Spangenberg and Mericli, the initial phase of the agreement calls for a three-year program. It goes from a pilot phase through commercialization, with a target of deploying the platooning software in 256 Wilson Logistics vehicles by the culmination of the three-year time span. Darrel Wilson, the CEO and president of Wilson Logistics, said the company has 1,100 trucks at present.

Locomation’s term for its platooning system is an Autonomous Relay Convoy (ARC). It plans to use the ARC technology on 11 separate segments that Wilson now operates.

The initial pilot program will be deployed on a segment between Portland, Oregon, and Nampa, Idaho. Spangenberg said the first run will take place in April.

One of the foundations of the Locamation/Wilson plan is that the driver of the trailing vehicle will eventually be considered off duty. Thus, a team of two drivers will be able to take the two trucks on longer journeys not restricted by the 11-hour Hours of Service (HOS) mandate.

Spangenberg said indications from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration are that the agency would zero in on safety considerations in platooning and any waivers to HOS rules. He added that both trucks in the Locomation/Wilson platoon will be “smart trucks”; “there is a lot that will assist the driver as the vehicle is in motion,” Spangenberg said.

Mericli summed up the view of the work that needs to be done by the driver of the second vehicle. “Once the automation is engaged, he’s no longer a driver,” Mericli said. “He’s a passenger.”

A “key question,” he added, is how an incident in the leading truck would impact the trailing truck. “What if the lead driver goes off a cliff?” Spangenberg said. But the second truck is not just a trailing vehicle, Spangenberg added. It is a level 4 autonomous truck and would be programmed not to follow that first truck over the edge.

Spangenberg said the adoption of the capabilities of the ARC system is a “progression.” From the view of the second driver as a safety driver, the goal is to get to the point where “the driver can turn his attention elsewhere,” he said. “We want to get to the stage faster where he can forget that he turned his back,” Spangenberg said. “At that point, he can go back to the bunk.”

Or as Mericli said: “One driver essentially drives two trucks. That creates a huge efficiency gain.”

Wilson said the key force behind his company’s interest in the partnership with Locomation was the promise of fuel efficiency. Savings on fuel costs have long been seen as one of the key advantages of platooning.

In a prepared statement announcing the partnership, the ultimate cost savings were estimated at a 33% reduction in operating cost per mile, 8% reduction in fuel expense, and removal of 41 metric tons of CO2 annually from each tractor. 

But Wilson said safety was a factor, too. “We see this as a continued evolution of safety,” he said. “It’s also going to create a better and higher-paying job for our drivers.”

Wilson said his company had not yet identified the drivers who would take part in the early tests of the system, though he conceded there were a few the company had identified as possible candidates. Potential customers whose freight would be on the trucks in the ARC test also have not been identified — though the Portland-to-Idaho route would set parameters on who that might be.

Wilson added that he will take his first ride in a test convoy in the next few weeks.

Mericli said the ARC system is designed to be compatible with Freightlinger, Peterbilt and Kenworth models. He added that Locomation is not just a software developer; it will build the hardware necessary to retrofit existing vehicles.

As far as the distance between the two vehicles, a “conservative” distance of roughly 100 feet — or 25 to 30 meters — is planned. But to reach full efficiency, getting down to 7 or 8 meters is the ultimate goal.

(Editor’s note: The story has been changed to reflect the fact that Mericli was involved in providing autonomous technology to Caterpillar when he was at Carnegie Mellon, not at Locomation.)