There’s little doubt that autonomy is the future of trucking, but when and in what capacity has been up for debate. Some say it’s decades away while others estimate sooner. But as the industry talks, Loadsmith has plotted a course.
The third-party logistics capacity-as-a-service platform has ambitious plans to fully automate trucking’s middle mile by 2024. CEO Brett Suma told FreightWaves he’s optimistic that’s when the regulatory environment will catch up with the technology, giving Loadsmith the go-ahead to roll out its autonomous middle-mile offering between select origin and destination pairings.
“We are differentiating ourselves by going fully autonomous in the middle mile in a very disciplined and high-density way,” Suma said.
In a partnership with autonomous driving technology company TuSimple, Loadsmith plans to deploy 350 self-driving trucks to exclusively run middle-mile logistics while power-only carriers carry out first- and last-mile operations. Loadsmith’s carrier network will be connected by its latest digital freight-matching app, which is scheduled to launch this summer.
Suma presents the middle mile as the perfect testing ground for autonomy, describing a high-density corridor such as the one between Dallas and El Paso, Texas, as ripe for automation.
“Autonomy thrives in repetitive tasks,” Suma said. “When you think about transportation and logistics with repetitiveness, what comes to mind are unique origin and destination pairings with significant lane density between them.”
Machine learning helps autonomous trucks understand the world around them. So the more a route is traveled, the smarter the truck becomes as it captures roadway data.
It also helps when the route is predictable. Suma said other attempts at autonomous trucking have failed to recognize this pattern. As a case in point, he noted coast-to-coast autonomous trucking with its underestimated complexities.
To avoid further variabilities, Loadsmith plans to operate initially in drier climates, particularly in the southern half of the United States. During inclement weather, Suma said, Loadsmith’s trucks will be capable of pulling over by themselves.
Although autonomous trucking is Loadsmith’s primary focus, drivers remain a key part of the company’s plans. In fact, Suma suggests its model will be preferred by drivers, as it will open more opportunities for power-only first- and last-mile positions.
“We’re not trying to replace drivers, we’re evolving the job,” Suma said. “What we’re doing is automating the repetitive task of the middle mile and creating more first- and last-mile jobs so that drivers can be home nightly and be present in their families’ lives but still go out and do very well for themselves financially without having to be an irregular route, over-the-road trucker.”
As shorter-haul and local jobs continue to gain popularity at the long haul’s expense, Suma believes that autonomy will not only replenish middle-mile capacity but provide an abundant amount between its origin and destination pairings. He estimates that an autonomous truck will be utilized two and a half times more than a solo driver, so 350 autonomous trucks have the capacity of 875 traditionally manned trucks.
Loadsmith is ramping up efforts to move $250 million in freight by 2024; the freight network currently moves $150 million. For Suma, it’s not a matter of whether autonomous technology will disrupt trucking but when — its adoption is imminent. So he believes there’s no better time than now to begin creating the platform for autonomous technology to thrive.
“If it doesn’t happen in 2024, that doesn’t mean it isn’t going to happen,” Suma said. “Nothing really changes for us because we’ll just continue building lane density and expand our network of freight.”
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