TuSimple Expanding Routes for Self-Driving Trucks

In a move that could have far-reaching consequences for the emerging autonomous trucking industry, startup TuSimple is expanding its self-driving routes in response to growing demand from contracted customers.

Currently, the company has 11 trucks in the US and will have 40 trucks in fully autonomous operation by June.

TuSimple makes three to five fully autonomous trips each day for customers on three different routes in Arizona.

The company, headquartered in San Diego, operates self-driving trucks out of Tucson and runs daily fully autonomous commercial routes from depot-to-depot, which requires both highway and local street driving.

An additional route from Arizona to Texas will come online in early 2019, Chuck Price, chief product officer at TuSimple, told TU-Automotive.

“We believe there is a ready market for this tech once we reach the stage where it is fully autonomous – driver-out,” Price said. “We believe there will be some early adopters who will put it in the vehicles before the regulations allow a driver-out situation.”

Price added that TuSimple has reached a point with their technology’s functionality where they need to start validating the platform, and it is going to take many millions of miles to do this.

In the trucking industry there are a couple of ways to validate technology, Price explained. One could go to a so-called “friendly fleet” and get them to put prototype versions on their trucks, such as a cruise control system or lane keeping, something simple.

“When it’s something like Level 4 automation, we don’t feel its appropriate for a third party to do the testing – it’s too much to train the driver, and too many miles to test the system,” he explained. “We’ve been planning this for quite some time, and this is the down-payment on that expansion.”

Price noted trucking is a high-capital cost, low-margin business, and fleet operators favor any solution that can boost their margins.

“Because of the severe driver shortage, they can’t meet the demand for shipping, which means they can’t expand their business,” Price said. “They won’t buy a truck if they can’t get a driver in the seat.”

According to a September 2018 PwC study, autonomous trucking technologies will reduce annual operating costs for a traditional average long-haul truck by 28% in 2025.

“We have data from several fleets that they are ready to adopt now — they have been very direct with us,” Price said. “They not only want to buy new trucks, they also want to buy a retro-fit plan for older trucks. That sends us quite a strong signal.”

In addition, there will be enormous increases in efficiency: autonomous trucks, according to the PwC report’s estimations, will be able to travel 78% of the time from 2030 onwards.

“In trucking, it is quite straightforward,” Price explained. “We are providing these vehicles to fixed routes with a clear purpose and clear savings, and it is substantially safer than [using] human drivers. So the motivations are very strong on the trucking side.”

The latest announcement is the next step in the realization of TuSimple’s previous expansion, made in September 2018. The company has been testing its Level 4 Class 8 autonomous trucks in the state of Arizona for more than a year.

TuSimple also expanded its testing facilities in 2018, growing to 50,000 square feet from 6,800 square feet, and the company plans to further expand their footprint this year.

“The key requirement for explosive growth — and I think it will be explosive growth — will be the moment we can go driver-out, and that is clear with all of the fleets we have been in conversation with,” Price said. “They are ready to make very substantial investments in automation but I don’t think that’s going to be commensurate with drivers losing their jobs.”

Price said changes in commerce, particularly the move to online shopping, has put tremendous pressure on shipping. In particular, Amazon has made a huge impact on the way shipping works.

“There aren’t young people going into truck driving — these guys know that they’re looking at some pretty bleak numbers, and they need to do something,” Price said. “This is the something they think will help them with this problem. We think the regulatory climate will allow this to happen very quickly, within the next two to three years.”

— Nathan Eddy is a filmmaker and freelance journalist based in Berlin. Follow him on Twitter.

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