Trucking automation is here (but not as sexy as you think)

When it comes to automation, it's more creep than paradigm shift.

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Unfurl the banner, sound the bugle, pop the cork: Automation has arrived in commercial trucking! (Although like many hyped technologies, the reality is more nuanced — and less sexy — than the headlines suggest.) 

Outrider, which is making a name for itself bringing autonomy to yard operations for logistics hubs, is rolling out automated tractor-trailer hitching capabilities. It's not a self-driving big rig, but this is actually a big deal, and it's yet another great case of how automation actually is taking over a sector, albeit in incremental ways. Automation creeps, it doesn't conquer.

Trucking is a really interesting canary in the coal mine for automation. Trucks are the go-to mode of transport for much of the U.S. economy. In fact, over 10 billion tons of freight moves across the US each year. On its way to its destination, just about all of it makes a stop at distribution yards, where trailers are unhitched from trucks. 

"Nearly all the food we eat, the clothes we wear, and the materials we use are transported by trucks and trailers," said Andrew Smith, Founder and CEO of Outrider. "Outrider automates yard operations, helping enterprises improve the efficiency and safety of a critical step in their supply chains. Hitching and unhitching is an integral part of yard automation and the global trucking industry, occurring millions of times per day."

While strides are being made toward autonomous trucking, particularly on long haul routes that don't require in-city maneuvering, a whole bunch of the day to day work of trucking actually takes place in yards, where actions are repetitive, work can be dangerous, and speed is critical. That makes yards a perfect use case for automation, and Outrider is smart to focus on this seam during the industry's inevitably clunky transition beyond driver-enhancement and toward outright automation, a process that could decades still.

The system relies on advanced perception, motion planning, and proprietary control algorithms to enable autonomous yard trucks to optimally align in front of semi-trailers, 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 extreme precision. The system can deliver millimeter level accuracy.

"Most autonomous trucking companies are focused on moving trailers down long stretches of public roads. Outrider is focused on moving trailers in distribution yards, where autonomous hitching technology is critical to automating the entire operation," added Smith. "There is an endless array of slight differences in trailer position and configuration when a truck connects to a trailer. Outrider's engineers have built groundbreaking technology that adapts in real-time to hitch to trailers of diverse heights, weights, and orientations."

To date the company has raised an impressive $118M in funding.