This Pittsburgh startup wants to put autonomous trains of semi trucks on the road

Locomation says they’ll be ready before you can hail a self-driving taxi.

MJ Slaby

Updated 2:15 p.m. March 17

What if two semi trucks could be controlled by one driver? A new Pittsburgh-based startup is ready to start testing its autonomous technology to make that a reality.

Locomation was founded by five autonomy experts from Carnegie Mellon University, all of whom worked at the National Robotics Engineering Center of CMU’s Robotics Institute.

The company is adding its technology to four trucks, and CEO Çetin Meriçli said the company will soon start testing its platooning technology on closed test tracks in the Pittsburgh area. And in the second half of 2019, he hopes to expand testing to public streets.

Platooning allows for multiple vehicles to be linked together in an autonomous train, bound not by a physical connection, but a wireless one. So while state law requires a driver in each vehicle, only the one in the lead vehicle would be actually driving, while the others follow with an autonomous connection.

In October, Pa. lawmakers passed a bill to allow for platooning of up to three automated buses, military vehicles or tractor-trailers on some highways and interstates starting this spring.

And with Locomation’s technology called “autonomous relay convoying,” trucks would be manually driven until they reach a highway where the convoy link is possible. Then, the lead driver would operate both trucks, while the second driver would be considered “off-duty.” Right now, the company is focused on convoys of two trucks, Meriçli said.

Platooning trucks before self-driving taxis

When it comes to self-driving vehicles, there are plenty of companies that want to create autonomous taxis, Meriçli said. So the founders of Locomation, who now lead a team of 15 people, wanted to solve a different problem.

The trucking industry has long faced a driver shortage, he said, adding that driver retention is also a problem because new hires decide that they don’t like the long hours and other lifestyle stresses of the job.

So Locomation decided to address that issue with autonomy. Plus, unlike fully-autonomous cars, which could take a decade or more to happen, Meriçli said autonomous trucks could happen in stages, starting with platooning. First is putting some autonomy behind the human driver, which makes the driving experience better, he said.

Locomation plans to start with technology that can be retrofitted to current trucks but eventually wants to offer trucks that are already equipped with the technology. While the goal is full autonomy, Meriçli said the first incremental step could be commercially available in 2022, with commercial testing starting as early as 2020. He said the company is already in conversations with interested fleets.

The company is also working with PennDOT to help develop policy to implement the new platooning law. One example, Meriçli is how the trucks will be visually labeled to indicate that they are part of a platoon. And in addition to Pennsylvania, he said, the company is working with other states and the federal government as platooning policies and legislation are created.

Three of Locomotion's trucks

Three of Locomation's trucks

mj slaby / the incline

With platooning, there are lower fuel costs and drivers can switch between being “off-duty” and the lead driver, resulting in faster trips. Plus, he said, it improves conditions for drivers by cutting down on the number of hours they drive.

Also at the top of the list is safety.

If driving is delegated to a machine, it has to perform at least at the level of a human and to be able to react if there is a problem, Meriçli said. He added that if a crash happens with a car, that’s a big problem, but if a crash happens with a 40-ton truck, that “could be a catastrophe.”

While trucks are usually on highways, which are more predictable, those roadways are not entirely predictable, Meriçli said, adding that developers can try to think of all the possibilities, but there are some unknowns that can’t be accounted for.

In some ways, it’s like going to space, he said.

And that’s why Locomation is testing every step along the way.

“I’m not saying this is a problem without a solution … We’re doing it,” Meriçli said.

Clarification: This article has been updated to reflect the number of staff who worked at the National Robotics Engineering Center.