Aurora, Covenant Team on Autonomous Trucking Program

An Aurora autonomous truck. (Aurora Innovations Inc.)

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Autonomous driving technology company Aurora Innovation Inc. will collaborate with Covenant Logistics to refine a self-driving truck system that could robotically emulate the speed of human team driving.

Covenant will be using the Pittsburgh-based self-driving technology company’s Aurora Horizon product.

It is a robotic driver-as-a-service business model that will offer fleets the ability to purchase vehicles powered by the Aurora Driver system, subscribe to use Aurora Driver and use Aurora-certified fleet service partners to operate autonomous mobility and logistics services.

“We’re designing Aurora Horizon to excel in applications like these and we’re happy to partner with a leading expedited carrier in Covenant to fine-tune and integrate it with their business,” Sterling Anderson, Aurora’s co-founder and chief product officer, said in a May 11 news release.

Aurora described the partnership as a collaboration that will refine Aurora Horizon ahead of its commercial launch.

“We’ll be focused on identifying the optimal deployment strategies for autonomous technology in Covenant’s commercial operations. This includes identifying the busiest hauls where the Aurora Driver can make the biggest difference,” the company said.

On focus will be the use of Aurora Beacon, which provides access to real-time data of each Aurora Driver-powered vehicle, including its health, status and current location. Aurora Beacon sends out real-time alerts about vehicle status, its estimated arrival time, traffic conditions and similar relevant data.

They also will collaborate “on how to effectively educate the industry — including policymakers, shippers and drivers — on the benefits of autonomous technology in the logistics industry, especially on long and strenuous lanes.”

Covenant specializes in using driver teams that extend the hours a truck can operate to expedite shipping. It will look at how a hybrid model that uses human drivers and the Aurora Driver might work.

“We’re working toward a hybrid model where carriers have the option to deploy trucks operated by human drivers or autonomous trucks, which will allow them to meet unmet demand and grow their businesses,” Aurora said.

Federal regulations limit the time drivers can operate a cab. Team drivers essentially double that time by trading off. But Aurora Driver-powered trucks would be able to operate nearly 24 hours a day and not be impacted by the federal hours of service.

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Like other nascent autonomous trucking programs, the collaboration could use human drivers for first- and last mile connections to highway adjacent hubs. The autonomous system would haul the freight long distance over highways, which provides fewer challenges for self-driving trucks than urban areas.

Aurora calls that “flexible human navigation at the endpoints.”

“We believe this technology has the potential to optimize operations and reduce fuel consumption while also helping our drivers, both in safety and quality of life,” Covenant President Joey Hogan said in the May 11 news release.

Such a system would reduce the distances human drivers travel, allowing them to spend more nights at home and more time with their families.

The Chattanooga, Tenn.-based truckload carrier’s Covenant Transport Services unit ranks No. 46 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest for-hire carriers in North America.

The agreement with Covenant marks Aurora’s fifth partnership with a transportation company. It already has commercial pilots with FedEx, Uber Freight, and Werner, and a collaboration partnership with U.S. Xpress.