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Terminals for autonomous trucks getting closer

Driverless trucks likely will be in limited use on some U.S. interstates as soon as late 2024. How they will be maintained between trips is a growing focus for their software developers.

Aurora Innovation appears to be farthest along in preparing for inspections, fueling maintenance and automated landing and launch of autonomous Class 8 trucks. An unremarkable frontage road location in Palmer, Texas, south of Dallas is being transformed into a terminal capable of doing for autonomous trucks those things they cannot do themselves.

Aside from driving, that is pretty much everything.

Aurora has fully functioning terminal for autonomous trucks

“We have delivered a fully functioning commercial AV terminal, and we believe it’s a leading AV terminal due to [its] capabilities,” Kendra Phillips, Aurora vice president of service delivery, told FreightWaves. “It has traditional things such as maintenance to drive the fleet uptime. But it has capabilities you might not always see, such as fueling or weighing.

“A [human] driver pulls off the highway, takes 30 minutes to go get fuel, gets a snack, takes a break, comes back on,” Phillips said. “We’re not going to do that. Once our trucks hit the highway, they’re going to keep running.”

Aurora trucks currently move 50 loads a week between Dallas and Houston on Interstate 45 for customers such as FedEx, Schneider and Uber Freight. They are programmed to drive autonomously from the freeway off-ramp to a landing pad at the South Dallas terminal. The trucks are still monitored by a safety driver in the cab.

“They don’t have to touch anything or do anything. They’re still there in the truck, but our goal is to have them not have to get involved at this point,” Phillips said.

When a truck switches out of autonomous mode, exterior lighting changes color to indicate it is safe to approach the truck.

Humans do everything for an autonomous truck

For now, safety drivers are part of a team that preps the truck for delivery to a launch pad where a human OKs a resumption of autonomous mode. Functions include drop and hook, sensor calibration, maintenance and inspection of the newly coupled tractor and trailer. 

The process typically takes less than two hours. The goal is to dramatically reduce that, especially when the terminal gets busy.

“We will be letting the terminal know that there’s a truck arriving,” Phillips said. “We can also be sequencing those trucks as they arrive, if there is a lot of volume coming in around the same time.”

Maintenance functions still need work, said Phillips, who joined Aurora a year ago from Ryder System Inc. During a 16-year career at Ryder, Phillips served as chief technology officer and formerly head of operations.

Ryder as a common denominator

She was integral in Ryder forming partnerships with multiple autonomous trucking startups including Aurora, TuSimple, Embark Trucks and Waymo Via. Embark is winding down its business because it was unable to raise new capital. Waymo Via and TuSimple still work with Ryder.

“We recently retrenched so we don’t anticipate substantial terminal growth in the near future,” TuSimple spokesperson Megan Strader told FreightWaves. 

TuSimple is focusing on launching a single driverless route in Arizona between Tucson and Phoenix late next year. It is the same route it first piloted in December 2021. TuSimple kept terminals in Fort Worth and North Houston, though it has wound down most of its money-losing freight-hauling operations in Texas. It also has a terminal in Tucson. Given TuSimple’s scaled back footprint and operations, Ryder said it has no active engagement.

Waymo Via took a hit as part of overall cuts in the “other bets” at Google parent Alphabet Inc.

“As our primary maintenance partner, Ryder continues to play an integral role for Waymo Via,” Charlie Jatt, Waymo Via head of commercialization, told FreightWaves. “We continue to learn from each other and explore additional services that we can partner on to support our testing operations and eventual commercial deployment.”

Competitors exploring terminal options

Torc Robotics, an independent subsidiary of Daimler Truck, sees numerous options for  terminals, also known as transfer hubs. They could include charging stations for localized battery-electric drayage fleets. Could they handle enhanced CVSA inspections, like Embark tested with Knight-Swift?

“Torc is currently working with a range of fleets to better understand the benefits and drawbacks of each different operating model,” Nick Elder, Torc head of strategy, told FreightWaves. “Ultimately, we believe all of these concepts have their place in the future of autonomous truck operations.”

Kodiak Robotics is also looking for the best fit for terminals. Right now, that includes piggybacking its needs at customer terminal and maintenance locations. Kodiak in August announced its first terminal in Atlanta in partnership with Pilot Co.

“We’ve had conversations with partners like Pilot about how they can best adapt existing facilities to serve as truck ports and have had some initial discussions with our customers about how they can best accommodate launching and landing our trucks in the future,” Kodiak CEO Don Burnette told FreightWaves.

No terminals needed for short-haul operations, Gatik says

Gatik Inc., which moves groceries and other consumer goods without drivers from distribution centers to stores for customers like Walmart and Canada grocery giant Loblaw Co. Ltd., doesn’t need land-and-launch terminals for its mostly Class 6 autonomous truck operation, spokesman Richard Steiner said.

“Our solution is integrated directly into our customer’s hub-and-spoke networks without the need for additional autonomous trucking terminals,” he said. “Gatik’s exclusive focus on short-haul B2B logistics enables us to offer an end-to-end autonomous solution.”

Terminals are busy places with a lot of moving parts, Aurora’s Phillips said. They will be operated by humans for a long time. Next up for Aurora is a makeover of its location in Houston followed by two facilities in El Paso, Texas. Aurora expects to start driverless operations between South Dallas and Houston next year.

“We’re fine with having humans drive that for many different reasons,” she said. “We need humans in the terminal anyhow doing a lot of the activities. I don’t look at it as a negative that they’re involved.”

Aurora points to driverless trucks in 2024

Aurora going the distance, adding 600-mile autonomous route in Texas

Pilot Co. invests in Kodiak Robotics to develop autonomous trucking hub

Click for more FreightWaves articles by Alan Adler.