How Colorado startup Outrider is electrifying distribution yards

To dramatic effect, 2021 showed us what happens when supply chains stall. The pandemic walloped transportation systems as costs shot up and efficiency plummeted amid lockdowns and manufacturing logjams. 

An Ernst & Young survey of supply chain executives found some enterprises are revamping their strategies by investing in artificial intelligence and robotics in a bid to bolster themselves against future transportation snags. These tools can be found up and down the distribution line, from internet of things management devices on a warehouse floor to automated data-driven delivery platforms. Giants such as Microsoft and Walmart have vowed to leverage new technologies to reduce emissions from their supply chain operations.

Ground transportation, in particular, represents one part of the supply chain that offers an opportunity to decarbonize with new-age innovation. Outrider Technologies has been helping companies with automation and electrification since 2017. The Colorado startup makes autonomous, electric yard trucks that it says can bolster the safety and efficiency of the supply chain — all with a minimal carbon footprint. 

“We’re essentially redefining the critical linkages in the supply chain,” Outrider CEO and founder Andrew Smith told GreenBiz. Over 10 billion tons of freight pass through distribution yards each year across the U.S., explained Smith, and Outrider’s vehicles are the bridge between production and delivery. 

For a company focused both in electric and autonomous vehicles, [Outrider] has the chance to address the environmental side of things, but also the social angle related to trucking and labor concerns.

Outrider can transform a distribution yard from a slow, manually run operation to an automated, fully electric integrated system. The company promises smoother supply chain processes, fewer workers in hazardous environments and a reduced environmental impact. 

Yard trucks, also called spotters, tow semi-trailers between docks in shipping yards and warehouses. At a given yard, there could be as many as 100 trailers waiting to be unloaded and ferried between docks. The work is dangerous, repetitive and slow. A fully-loaded, 53-foot trailer can weigh upwards of 80,000 pounds. Even an empty one can be 35,000 pounds. The pandemic hit the trucking workforce hard, and their absence has given greater urgency to automation trends.

“For a company focused both in electric and autonomous vehicles, [Outrider] has the chance to address the environmental side of things, but also the social angle related to trucking and labor concerns,” said Zhihan Ma, global head of ESG at Bernstein, an investment management firm. 

Outrider’s vehicles can drive themselves around yards, hitch and unhitch trailers and steer behemoths all without human intervention — a huge consideration for safety. “People are getting in and out of massive vehicles in probably the most hazardous environment in the supply chain,” Smith said. “There’s just so much large, moving equipment.”

Outrider minimizes the dangers inherent to the distribution yards because the work is no longer a boots-on-the-ground operation. As yard traffic diminishes and less people are required to operate a yard, safety increases, Smith explained. 

Benefits multiply since autonomy is paired with electrification, according to Smith. A disproportionate amount of emissions from heavy-duty vehicles comes from low-speed operations such as short-distance, repetitive movements within shipping yards, according to the International Council on Clean Transportation. These vehicles make countless trips per day within tight spaces. Due to inefficiencies or yard congestion, they often have to sit idle while guzzling diesel and emitting carbon dioxide. 

“Outrider has a direct impact on supply chain carbon emissions because we are accelerating zero-emission goals by replacing manual diesel systems,” Smith said. The technology, Smith said, makes the entire transportation system run more efficiently — and thus use less energy.

Distribution yard

The shipping company brands itself as an innovator in the supply chain sector. Drawn to its climate-friendly technology, early investors have helped it expand its operations and scale since 2017. In November, Outrider completed its 1,000th autonomous, zero-emission trailer move at a Georgia-Pacific distribution center — an industry-first milestone.

“There’s a whole cohort of these early-stage companies that have the potential to really provide new ways for us to address our environmental and social footprint,” said Ma.

“We’re streamlining the flow of trailers in and out of ports and distribution centers,” Smith said. “We reduce the wait time for trucks that show up for pick-up or drop-off of trailers, which is like eliminating carbon emissions from the idling of trucks at another coal-powered center.”

To build Outrider, Smith married his passions. He previously founded ATDynamics — a technology company that focuses on reducing fuel consumption for commercial vehicles — and was a board director for robotics firm Branch Technology. Outrider is staffed with experts in autonomous technology, robotics, cloud computing and supply chain experts. 

As of its Series B round of funding, Outrider has raised a total of $118 million in capital and employs over 150 people. According to the company, it works with 11 large priority customers, representing more than 20 percent of the yard trucks in operation in North America. 

Earlier this year, Outrider launched a 2000,000-square-foot Advanced Testing Facility in Brighton, Colorado, where it tests vehicles in a yard that mimics those of Fortune 500 companies. 

Smith called Outrider’s technology an “inflation-busting” product because it makes yard operations more productive, efficient and cost-effective. The vehicles can operate 21 out of 24 hours per day, according to Smith. Unlike electric vehicles built for road use, Outrider’s yard trucks don’t have to consider mileage ranges because everything occurs within a defined, limited area. 

“Our objective is to eventually move the majority of the world’s freight with our distribution yards, using our software and zero-emissions platforms,” Smith said. “There’s a huge demand for what we do, and we’re moving as quickly as possible to scale up these systems and have them operating, unsupervised, in large networks.”

Building a sustainable supply chain won’t happen overnight. But Outrider is playing its part, one electric yard-move at a time.

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