Pittsburgh’s Locomation places a convoy twist on autonomous trucking

The Pittsburgh Strip District, once home to Industrial Age giants Alcoa, Heinz, U.S. Steel and Westinghouse, has evolved over the past decade into a technology and robotics hub, and notably, a testbed of autonomous vehicles. That activity has more recently spilled out beyond Smallman Street, so-called Robotics Row, past the confines of the Strip District and Lower Lawrenceville and into adjoining neighborhoods to the north and south.

And while, Argo AI, Aurora Innovation (as well as its newly acquired addition Uber ATG) and Motional are the most visible examples of autonomous vehicle testing and development in the city, numerous other AV startups have popped up in the past six years — each one betting that its application will provide the quickest path to commercialization.

Locomation, a startup founded in 2018 that is working on autonomous trucks, is one of them. The co-founders, who met at the National Robotics Engineering Center, an operating unit within Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute, believe the smoothest, fastest route to autonomous trucks is to use a human-guided convoy system first.

Locomation contends that autonomous trucks that can operate without a human safety driver behind the wheel will happen eventually and after considerable validation. But until then, the company is pitching a convoy system, in which a lead driver pilots a truck and another truck follows it autonomously. The autonomous one will also have a driver, but that individual will be resting and is considered a passenger.

“We decided that we needed to expose the (autonomous) system to the real world in a safe and profitable way,” co-founder and CEO Çetin Meriçli told TechCrunch in a recent interview, adding that is how the idea of human-guided autonomous driving came about. “We are still building a Level 4 system with an extremely narrow operational design domain that can drive itself and it doesn’t require a driver in the seat as long as there is a human driven lead track right in front of it.”

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Locomation’s starting point is a two-driver, two-truck system for long haul routes. When the lead driver is in place, the following driver is resting in the other vehicle. Both trucks are equipped with a self-driving system so they can periodically swap positions. However, Meriçli noted that while the lead driver is operating the vehicle, the autonomous system is only assisting the person.

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“There is some automation there, but we don’t think it is a good idea to automate the lead truck so much that the lead driver can actually become complacent,” he said. “Keeping the driver engaged enough and at the same time trying to reduce the cognitive load as much as possible is a very delicate balance to hit there.”

The drivers then take over manual driving once they leave the interstate.

The next phase is what Locomation calls the drone follower system designed for shorter haul routes of 250 miles or less. This system involves one driver and two trucks, one lead and one following behind autonomously.

These two human guided convoy concepts will help the company progress to an autonomous system in which trucks operate without humans between hubs on an interstate and then eventually to dock to dock, which would include non-interstate roads.

Locomation has a contract to equip 1,120 Wilson Logistics trucks with its autonomous relay convoy technology over the next five years. The first trucks are expected to be delivered in 2022. The company recently signed an eight-year agreement to supply PGT Trucking with the systems for 1,000 trucks.

Today, Locomation is in test mode, although it has hauled some freight. That means safety drivers are always behind the wheel. Eventually, it will transition to a commercial operation, which Meriçli said the company is aiming to launch in the second half of 2022.

To reach that goal, Locomation is doing what some many others are aiming for: raising money, recruiting talent and expanding. Locomation, which currently operates across the Alleghany River from Pittsburgh’s Strip District, will soon move to larger facility in the Tech Forge section.

Mericli said there are at least two dozen startups working on autonomous vehicle technology in Pittsburgh.

“Most of them are really little hole in the wall operations, maybe a couple of folks,” Mericli said. ” Many of them are actually the second generation or third generation; they started their careers in one of these larger companies, worked there for a number of years, identified a few pain points and either got frustrated with the slow progress or got bit by the entrepreneurship bug.”

“It’s not quite like Silicon Valley, just yet,” Mericli said, adding that it is getting closer to that West Coast hub of tech. “What I see here, which was not the case a couple of years ago, is that now there are some role models, some success stories, some big achievers, like the Argos and Auroras of the world. Hopefully, Locomation is climbing those ladders too. Now young people and new entrepreneurs coming out of the CMU ecosystem, the way they are thinking about their business and their aspirations, it’s getting closer to the Silicon Valley mindset.”

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