Weekly Brief: Autonomous Tech Just Got Truckin’

Self-driving start-up TuSimple announced a major development that will see its 40 self-driving trucks unleashed across an 1,100-mile stretch of highway in the American Southwest.

The route reaches from Houston in the east across the heart of Texas, up through the southwest corner of New Mexico into the Valley of the Sun, where it terminates in Phoenix, Arizona. The company is calling the corridor its “Autonomous Freight Network” and has inked partnerships with UPS, Penske, McLane and US Xpress to bring the network to life.

This is significant news in part because it’s not Tesla and it’s not Waymo that we’re talking about here. TuSimple may be familiar to industry insiders but it’s far from a household name. That may be about to change. Autonomous trucks are more primed to go mainstream than robo-taxis or last-mile autonomous deliveries. Long haul trucking takes place over vast distances, mostly on the open road, on highways that can be easily mapped and are rarely disturbed by the challenges of urban environments, like bikers, pedestrians, gridlock and right turns on red. TuSimple has digitally mapped the 1,100-mile corridor in its entirety and sprinkled terminals at strategic locations throughout. The whole network will be monitored by an in-house tracking system.

In the first phase rollout, its 40 autonomous trucks will begin to cruise the corridor with packages in tow on behalf of its delivery partners, who will pay on a per delivery basis. The trucks will service two cities in Arizona, Phoenix and Tucson, and four in Texas including Houston, San Antonio, Dallas and El Paso. Come 2022, TuSimple plans to shift into its second phase, when the network will expand coast-to-coast from Jacksonville, Florida, to Los Angeles, California. If all goes well, come 2023 TuSimple plans to roll out its network to all 48 states in the continent.

For an industry accustomed to delays and quiet pilots ever since a self-driving Uber struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona, there’s something exhilarating about seeing a company step up and unveil an ambitious timetable like TuSimple’s. Alongside the start-up’s rollout in America, the company says that it is planning a similarly ambitious rollout in Europe and Asia, where it already has a pilot successfully underway in Shanghai.

The challenges of navigating COVID-19 and a global pandemic that is primed to unleash a second, even more deadly wave, make this time all the more ripe for TuSimple and its competitors. Autonomous delivery of goods that requires zero interaction with human beings has never been more appealing.

Last Monday I wrote about Amazon and its $1.2 billion acquisition of driverless startup Zoox. Jeff Bezos has made it clear that he wants drones and self-driving cars delivering Amazon Prime boxes on doorsteps around the world. That will be a harder challenge to solve, however, than rolling out and ramping up a nationwide autonomous freight network, as TuSimple is about to do. The autonomous revolution seems to be coming after all. A company most people have never heard of may be emblazoned on the hood ornament.

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