Automobile

How autonomous trucks could make busy freight yards safer

At an innovative company in Golden, Colo., called Outrider, autonomous trucks hitch themselves to trailers to safely and quickly move freight — guided solely by their sensors and sophisticated software.

Outrider builds, tests and sells these trucks to large companies to move heavy cargo quietly and efficiently inside massive distribution yards.

With these battery-powered yard tractors, Outrider’s cloud-based software guides and commands freight trailers rolling at 5 to 15 mph to loading docks and through parking lots, hitching and unhitching them and their brake lines. The software also tracks the inventory and monitors, records and centrally controls the yard’s operations.

Outrider’s experts say that robotic guidance ensures a greater level of safety in an often busy, messy and dangerous freight-yard environment. CEO Andrew Smith, who started the company in 2017, also claims it speeds up the transition of goods between the warehouse and the road, with much less noise and fewer emissions. Combined, the nation’s over-the-road trucks spend roughly 10 million days each year in U.S. logistics yards to drop off and pick up trailers.

Smith says Outrider is conducting 11 pilot programs with clients that want to autonomously operate their distribution yards. Last month, customer Georgia-Pacific, a leading manufacturer and distributor of consumer-packaged goods, completed 1,000 autonomous, zero-emission trailer moves as part of its daily operations at its Chicagoland distribution center in Elwood, Ill.

“On an annual basis, there’s over 10 billion tons of freight moving through U.S. markets alone,” Smith says. “And the majority of that goes by truck, and the majority of that goes through one type of distribution center or another. And inside these distribution centers are all kinds of customer pain points. What you’re hearing going on now is that there is a shortage of people who want to do these dull, dirty, dangerous jobs.”

A freight yard’s shorter distances, lower speeds and enclosed environments facilitate the use of GPS, lidar, cameras, radar and computerized truck-driving robotics. These distribution centers around the globe are an important link in the supply chain where goods are moved from warehouse or factory out to the road system. So many businesses are exploring ways to automate to increase throughput, improve efficiency and cargo tracking, lower pollution, and enhance safety.

“It’s a hazardous environment to have humans around 80,000-pound pieces of equipment operating through all kinds of weather and at all times of day and night,” Smith says. “And a big issue is misplaced trailer assets. So, you’ll have over-the-road vehicles dropping things off, and then they can’t be found. And when you can’t find the right trailer filled with 40,000 pounds of goods, that obviously slows things down.”

Outrider says that using perception, motion planning and proprietary control algorithms, its autonomous trucks align optimally in front of a semitrailer, back under the trailer and attach the fifth wheel, the connection point of the truck, to the kingpin, the connection point on the trailer, with great precision.

Not only does the system connect with accuracy, but it also uses sensors to confirm a kingpin lock, without requiring manual verification.

At present, the electrically powered trucks are plugged in by workers when they’re inspected between shifts. But Smith says that in the future, they will be charged by driving over inductive coils in the yard, and charging will be scheduled and monitored by the system’s software.

In August, Outrider opened its Advanced Testing Facility, a validation site in Brighton, Colo., dedicated to customer distribution- yard automation. The 200,000-square-foot yard with 49 dock doors operates 16 hours a day, five days a week, and will expand to 24-hour operation in 2022.

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