Chinese startup TuSimple plans to test its fleet of self-driving commercial trucks in Arizona and Shanghai in 2018, leading up to the successful launch of a commercial autonomous trucking service in 2019. This move introduces another competitor in the self-driving race between giants like Tesla, Uber, and Waymo. These companies are all striving to transform the way we send, deliver, and receive commercial goods, and TuSimple’s technology and powerful financial backing make it a serious contender.
TuSimple started out developing car-identification software that identifies the make and model of cars after analyzing images. Seeing greater business potential for the visual-recognition technology in autonomous driving applications, Founder and Entrepreneur Mo Chen decided to move TuSimple into haulage rather than selling the technology to fleet owners or logistics firms. The company does not, however, have plans to create autonomous passenger vehicles, an area with higher risks, greater challenges, and lower business cost-related returns.
TuSimple aims to put 60 to 100 specially-retrofitted big rig trucks on Arizona roads. Each will have three radars, 10 cameras, and a control system that analyzes traffic conditions in real time. Should the planned 3 million miles of road tests in 2018 prove successful — and assuming regulations permit — the plan for 2019 will be introducing commercial services on two routes to start with: a 20-mile route connecting a port in Shanghai and warehousing, and a 120-mile stretch of highway between Phoenix and Tucson in Arizona.
TuSimple already completed a 200-mile Level 4 test drive between Yuma, Arizona and San Diego in June. Level 4 vehicles can drive themselves in almost any setting and will safely stop if they request the human driver to take over and get no response. Uber has also completed a successful Level 4 commercial run, and plans to have its self-driving Otto trucks on the road sometime this year. Waymo has also conducted tests, and Tesla plans to conduct fully-autonomous, level 5 tests soon, although there is not yet a date set.
This test drive was significant, although there is still a major leap between Level 4 and Level 5, which doesn’t need a human at all. The recent House passage of regulations for self-driving vehicles apply to passenger cars only, and it’s not clear how soon or how readily lawmakers will allow large commercial vehicles to be driverless.
Haulage is a prime automation target because driving cargo from point A to point B is far less complicated than city driving, and because there is a growing shortage of drivers in the industry. Autonomous commercial trucks could lower logistics costs by 40 percent in the US and 25 percent in China, primarily because neither food nor rest would be needed, and also because of increased fuel efficiency.
The bigger benefit, though, is safety. In China, commercial trucks kill around 25,000 people annually, according to Bloomberg’s reference to Ministry of Public Security data. Almost 30 percent of Chinese truckers suffer from driver fatigue during the early morning and afternoon.
Things are no better in the US, where truck driving is among the deadliest jobs, with trucking and transportation occupations comprising just over one-quarter of all work-related fatalities in the nation. And while it may be a daunting prospect for the millions in the transportation industry, automation is coming. The smart money is not on fighting the trend, but on seeing it as a way of protecting humans in dangerous professions, and providing them with the opportunity to learn to do something different — and safer.