Backyard trucks: also known as spotters, gearboxes, transport trucks and terminal tractors, or, for those who prefer zoological nomenclature, backyard birds, horses, dogs or mules. Either way, these are vehicles that tow semi-trailers from dock to dock and a parking space to a place in warehouses and delivery notes. Last week I tried handling one. I am proud to report that, in my first attempt, I successfully placed a 53-foot trailer in the dock in a sandwich with two other trailers.
Well, more specifically, I sat down at a laptop for a table in a New Jersey suburban dining room, clicked on a few simple commands, then watched a truck from the backyard of a warehouse in Brighton, Colorado, drove to a parked trailer, nailed to it, they dragged about 150 feet to an empty dock, loaded and unloaded – all without human intervention. My debut as a warehouse manager was prepared by Outrider Technologies Inc., a Colorado startup that makes self-driving trucks. It’s an outrider another example automated and electric vehicles that are in use in agricultural and industrial premises, where they can perform dirty and dangerous jobs without encountering passengers or pedestrians.
“We’ve found that privately owned autonomous vehicles, low-speed apps like a distribution center, could have a big impact,” says Outrider CEO Andrew Smith, who founded the company in 2017 and secretly ran it under the name Azevtec until last year. Smith estimates that there are about 50,000 trucks in operation in the United States at any one time. Together, they travel millions of times a day, usually emitting carbon dioxide.
Annual truck sales in the U.S. are about 3,500 and growing, says Tim Denoyer, a senior analyst at ACT Research. Most run on diesel, but according to Denoyer’s estimates, 10% to 15% of sales this year will be electric. “The two-way spotter is one of the first drivers of electricity,” he says, “mainly because of the lack of fear in range and because the fuel efficiency of diesel spotters is terrible.”
Driving a backyard truck is a repetitive job that takes time to master and is usually not paid for as long as a long distance job. The traffic is big. In addition to towing trailers on busy pitches and placing them in tight spaces, drivers must get out of the cab for each tow to connect the pressurized air hose to the trailer to release the parking brake – a task the Outrider had to solve to automate.
The startup buys electric backyard trucks from manufacturers such as the Orange EV and equips them with cameras, radars and lidar sensors to manage the self-driving software. Earlier this year, the company opened a 350,000-square-foot warehouse and yard in Brighton, north of Denver, to build and test its vehicles. For most of the day, a handful of AVs tow trailers up to and from 49 doors on site. Outrider has nine pilot customers testing its system, including trucks, shipping management software and a Golden-based help center.
For now, safety drivers sit behind the wheel of each truck with a large red button that allows them to turn off the robot and take power. The Outrider hopes to run out of drivers sometime in 2023.
Last week, when I was the first reporter to be allowed to test the system, the safety driver didn’t need his button. After a brief guide from Outrider’s vice president, Peter James, I was able to use the drop-down menu on the internet dashboard to instruct the tractor to lift the trailer from parking lot 38 and lower it to dock 15. A robotic arm on the back of the truck did the docking and uncoupling job air hoses. It lasted a total of ten minutes, slower than the average driver could have done, but without error. The speed will come later, James says. For now, the focus is on “precision and repeatability of moves” and makes the job easier so that a beginner like me can do it.