Posts Tagged ‘autonomous trucks’

CN Invests in Autonomous Trucking Firm

December 10, 2020

Canadian National and Union Pacific have invested in a startup firm that is developing self-driving trucks.

The two railroads were among the investors of $350 million round of funding for TuSimple, which currently operates autonomous trucks on routes in the Southwest.

Those trucks have a “safety driver” who can take control of the truck if needed. A company engineer also rides in the cab to monitor the operation.

Among TuSimple’s clients is parcel carrier UPS.

Railroads see autonomous trucks as a way to reduce terminal costs in an effort to be more competitive in the competition for short-haul traffic.

Intermodal analyst Larry Gross told Trains magazine that CN and UP might be seeking to use autonomous operation hostler rigs within their intermodal terminals.

He doesn’t think railroads would use autonomous trucks to dray trailers and containers from one terminal to another because that involves driving on city streets rather than cruising down interstate highways for long stretches.

Because they own their terminals, railroads would have more freedom to experiment with autonomous trucks on that property.

Gross noted, though, that draying would be a viable operation in which to use electric-power trucks because of the short distances involved.

Rail Executives See Intermodal Boom Lasting Into Next Spring

November 13, 2020

Executives of CSX and Canadian National told a conference this week they are optimistic that the robust intermodal volumes that railroads have seen in recent weeks will continue through early next spring.

Speaking to the Baird Industrials Conference, the executives said this was due to North American retailers continuing to rebuild inventories depleted during the COVID-19 pandemic-induced economic slowdown.

For the past few months intermodal growth has outpaced that of other rail freight commodities, which have continued to lag behind 2019 levels although intermodal traffic fell sharply in the early months of the pandemic.

Mark Wallace, the CSX executive vice president of sales and marketing, told conference attendees that intermodal growth is expected to continue deep into the first quarter of 2021.

“This e-commerce phenomenon is continuing, and we’re seeing some great volumes in this replenishment of inventories, and restocking is going extremely well,” he said.

CSX’s intermodal volumes has been up 10 percent since Oct. 1, with trailer volume increased by 26 percent compared with a year ago.

The growth in trailers is significant because those often carry parcels and less than truckload shipments related to e-commerce.

Keith Reardon, CN’s senior vice president of consumer product supply chain, said his company’s sales personnel based in Asia are predicting international trade coming from that continent will continuing deep into February and maybe into March as North American inventories are rebuilt.

Although CN-served ports in Western Canada will be a primary beneficiary of this trade, the Danish shipping line Maersk recently made its first call at the CN-served Port of Mobile, Alabama, with Asian cargo routed through the Panama Canal.

In a related matter, CN Chief Financial Officer Ghislain Houle told the same conference that if trucks evolve to become autonomous, that could hurt railroad intermodal business that travels in the 500- 700-mile radius.

However, he said autonomous trucks would pose less of a threat to long-haul intermodal volume, at least in the short term.

Although autonomous trucks are still in the testing stage, Houle expects them to become reality eventually.

When that happens, railroads will need to respond by shifting to one-person locomotive crews and eventually autonomous operation in which there is no one in the locomotive cab.

“Now obviously the driverless truck will get there,” Houle said. “And obviously that may represent a threat to railroads.”

Positive train control will enable railroads to respond by operating one-person crews and, within a couple of years, driverless trains.

“If you believe that a truck can be driverless on publicly-funded roads, you will believe that at one point trains could be driverless on a privately-funded network,” Houle said. “So the technology will advance on trains as well.”

Driverless trains are already operating on the Rio Tinto railroad in Australia.

Houle acknowledged that it will take more than technological advances to make driverless trains a reality.

Government regulators in the United States and Canada will need to be persuaded to allow them and the arguments in favor of autonomous trains will need to be rooted in safety and not economics.

“You will make the case that having a driverless truck or you will make the case that having a driverless train is safer than having people in the cab,” Houle said.

Panelist Discuss How Technological Changes are Affecting Competition Between Rails and Trucks

August 20, 2020

Railroads hold advantages over trucks in moving freight over longer distances, but those advantages might be wiped out or greatly diminished by the development of battery-powered rigs and autonomous truck operation.

Still, members of a panel that met during a recent Intermodal Association of North America webcast said Class 1 railroads have the money and time to do something about that because widespread use of battery-powered trucks and autonomous operation is still at least five years away.

Railroad industry observer Anthony Hatch said railroads have five advantages over trucks: Railroads are less labor intensive, more fuel efficient, have a lower carbon footprint, own their own infrastructure, and are financially strong.

In fact, Hatch said, the railroad industry is more profitable than ever.

But if railroads sit on those resources rather than invest them in becoming more efficient operators, trucks may erase some of those advantages.

Electric and autonomous trucks hold the promise of being less costly to operate, which would overcome the labor and fuel costs advantages that railroads have now.

“If we were to see a magical turnover to an all-electric road fleet, that would be good for the air that we breathe and not very good for railroad shareholders,” Hatch says.

He said some “very smart people” in the trucking industry are working diligently to figure out how to improve the range and lower the cost of battery-powered trucks as well as implement autonomous operation.

Battery-powered trucks are currently on the road, but their high cost means that trucks powered by diesel fuel are still cheaper.

Another drawback of existing battery-powered trucks is a range limited to 150 miles.

Currently, the economics of battery-powered trucks only work in California and because of a state subsidy implemented to reduce air pollution.

Most battery-powered trucks are being used for drayage and local service.

Brian Cota of Daimler Trucks America said many of the costs of owning and operating electric trucks, including battery life and charging costs, remain unknown.

He said trucking companies will need five years of experience with electric rigs before being able to get a handle on what the market will look like.

Panelists said battery-powered trucks need a range of at least 350 miles to become practical for regional moves.

The consensus in the railroad industry is that 500 miles is the floor at which railroad double-stack service can compete with trucks.

As for autonomous trucks, technology firm TuSimple is testing autonomous truck moves on Interstate 10 in the Southwest with a driver in the cab to monitor operations.

TuSimple is working with Navistar to produce self-driving semis by 2024.

TuSimple’s Robert Brown expects autonomous trucks to be used primarily for highway moves. Human drivers will be used for pickup and delivery at shippers’ docks.

Brown said the initial market is expected to be team driving routes that aren’t competitive with intermodal.

Seth Clevenger, managing editor of features at trade publication Transport Topics, said the move toward autonomous trucks is expected to be an evolution, not a revolution.

As for what railroads can do to counter advances in the trucking industry, Hatch said they could borrow some of the technology that truckers are developing.

That would include using battery-powered drayage trucks in order to reduce the costs of picking up and dropping off containers at rail terminals.

BNSF is operating a pilot program using autonomous yard trucks and autonomous and remote-control cranes in intermodal terminals.

It is also working with Wabtec to test a battery-powered road locomotive in California.