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Trucking Startup Aims To Make Self-Driving Long-Haul Look Easy

Trucking Startup Aims To Make Self-Driving Long-Haul Look Easy

If Robert Brown, director of government affairs for the autonomous trucking startup TuSimple, has his way,  2019 will be the year that self-driving trucking hits the mainstream.

"I want to get my mom and dad to ride along," said Brown during a conversation with FreightWaves at the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) last week. "The goal is to be forward-facing."

Co-founded by Cal Tech-trained cognitive scientist Xiaodi Hou (who's also the chief technology officer and U.S. unit president), the three-year-old TuSimple is generating buzz for what it claims is a breakthrough vision system and a significant uptick in the number of autonomous trucks it will put on the road.

The company, with headquarters in San Diego and China, began moving freight with its autonomous fleet in Arizona last year, and last week announced plans to expand its current fleet of 11 trucks to 40 by June. It is also partnering with Cummins to integrate its autonomous-driving tech with truck powertrains.

"We're doing this with real commercial shippers and real cargo," said chief product officer Chuck Price, who sat in on the CES meeting. TuSimple, he said, is running its own trucks to validate the technology. "We're eating our own dogfood."

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Other players in the increasingly crowded self driving truck space, notably Embark and Waymo, are also testing trucks on the road. All still have "real" human drivers behind the wheel as a backup.

TuSimple's "secret sauce," Brown said, is a perception system that can detect vehicles and objects up to 1,000 meters (about six-tenths of a mile) ahead, an accomplishment he said competitors had yet to duplicate. "We're the only one doing this extent of Level Four."

Level Four refers to the (confusing) set of autonomous vehicle engineering design standards defining the extent to which a car or truck can operate without a human driver. Vehicles meeting the Level Four standard can operate without human input or oversight but only under select conditions defined by factors such as road type or geographic area.

TuSimple's technology incorporates the by now standard AV combination of  cameras, radar and LiDAR but its breakthrough tracking innovation is to rely mostly on specialized cameras alone. "We are camera forward," Brown said.  

The ability to detect where vehicles are far off in the distance is important for massive Class 8 semi-trucks that take a considerable amount of time and space to stop while traveling 60 to 70 miles per hour on highways.

As Brown himself admits, there's a lot of hype in the self-driving vehicle space. And while TuSimple is one of the leaders, it is not ahead of the pack, said Richard Bishop, a consultant who specializes in smart and automated vehicles.

"TuSimple has a very substantial staff and testing operation," Bishop said.

But, he added: "All of  the major players have sufficient sensing capability to go to market." While TuSimple's vision system "is important and useful, it's not a gateway that everyone has to get through."

Other approaches can also be used for  Level Four operations, Bishop said.

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As startups expand their operations, the big players are beginning to throw their weight around.

At CES last week, Daimler chief Martin Daum said the trucking company would invest $570 million in autonomous trucking and would put a Level Four truck on the road this fall.

Following a well-trod innovation pathway, startups in the self-driving space are testing the market. "Then an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) can look at that and say ‘This is going in the right direction.' That's what Daimler's done," Bishop said.

"For any of the OEMs, it's not a  matter of technical capability; it's a business decision," added Bishop, noting he rode in an autonomous Daimler truck on the highway back in 1999.

As the race heats up, TuSimple, which has raised $83 million over three funding rounds, continues to blaze its own trail. Its fleet of Peterbilt trucks currently makes three to five trips a day over three routes in Arizona, and the plan is to add a route from Arizona to Texas this year. These are revenue-generating routes, Brown emphasized.

The tagline, "self-driving trucks," is displayed prominently on company vehicles. "We want to be as open and transparent as possible," Brown said.

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Posted-In: Consumer Electronics Show Freight Freightwaves self-driving vehiclesEarnings News Markets Tech