With autonomous driving technology advancing more and more every day, a lot of car and tech companies are focusing on how this technology can be applied to cars to reduce traffic and make our roads safer. As the idea of self-driving cars gains popularity, so does the idea of self-driving commercial trucks. Autonomous big rigs hauling freight across the country would not only improve supply chain management and efficiency for businesses but would also give us the advantages of the self-driving car.
One company that’s gaining momentum developing technology for self-driving trucks is a firm called TuSimple. TuSimple has operations in both the U.S. and China developing and testing autonomous truck tech with plans of bringing it to the mainstream. The company doesn’t build its own trucks, rather, it creates technology that can be implemented on existing trucks to make them autonomous. We spoke with TuSimple’s Vice President of Product, Chuck Price about what his company is working on and where it’s headed for the future.
Price describes TuSimple as “an autonomous vehicle technology company” that is “focusing on Class 8 trucks.” Class 8 trucks are the big tractor trailers you see on the highway hauling freight. “We’re providing level 4 autonomous technology,” said Price. “We’re in the business of providing the technology and an autonomous vehicle service down the road. That means we provide an ongoing support for fleets that will be using the autonomous technology in terms of mapping and actively monitoring the autonomous vehicles. In the rare case that a vehicle gets itself in a situation where it can’t continue, we’ll provide a rescue service.”
That sounds similar to Nissan’s Seamless Autonomous Mobility technology. It’s a system where someone from a human support staff takes control of an autonomous car when it gets stuck and simply can’t get past an obstacle that a human driver would be able to get through. For example, if it gets stuck behind a taco truck and gets too confused to continue, the car will still be able to drive without intervention from anyone inside the car thanks to SAM. A similar technology would be very useful in an autonomous truck, especially when parking at loading docks.
“We have a multiphase approach to getting our product on the market,” said Price of the implementation of TuSimple’s technology. “In the first phase, we are building a small fleet of trucks that are owned by TuSimple that will be hauling commercial cargo as a fleet. That fleet will work out the rough edges of the technology before we spring it on the rest of the world.”
I asked where TuSimple is with working out those rough edges and Price told me about the prototypes currently driving themselves around the U.S. and China. “We have prototypes that are running on highways in China and in the U.S. We have been running a prototype at level 4 [autonomy] on a stretch between San Diego and Yuma,” said Price. “We’ve also been running level 4 in China in an area called Caofeidian east of Beijing.” The prototypes have covered about 15,000 miles of road so far in testing. TuSimple trucks aren’t ready to haul any freight quite yet, so they’re practicing by hauling weight.
“We consider ourselves focused on near-highway and on-highway autonomy and also closed area autonomy. Once we are in our domain near- and on-highway, it’s fully autonomous," said Price. "We currently run with supervising drivers monitoring the system, we’re not ready yet to release a fully driverless system.”
“We’re focused on commercial at the time. I think the technology can apply in a wide domain, but in order to get our product out we want to focus on commercial,” said Price when I asked if TuSimple had any plans of developing autonomous tech for cars. “We have run the technology in cars and trucks, but cars are not our forte.” He clarified that was only for testing purposes and “just for convenience.”
I asked Price what unique challenges self-driving trucks face that self-driving cars don’t. “Trucks have different dynamics,” explained Price. “It’s an articulated vehicle so you have to understand not only what the tractor is doing, but what the trailer is doing. You can’t practically put sensors directly on the trailer so all of the information on the trailer has to be determined by the sensors that are on the tractor.” TuSimple uses cameras on the tractor to watch what the trailer is doing and make necessary adjustments according to the trailer’s position.
Challenges for self-driving trucks are not only technical but also legislative. I asked Price what hurdles the autonomous trucking business has ahead of it to get new regulation to rule in its favor. “We mostly are working with individual states. States tend to compete with each other for business so they are motivated to work with autonomous technology companies. We’re finding that there’s a lot of positive movement at the state level," said Price. "We’ve also found that the federal DOT is actually quite supportive and positive. There are certain non-governmental organizations that have put up some resistance to autonomous trucks.”
Some non-governmental organizations such as the teamsters unions have been vocal in their opposition to truck drivers eventually being replaced by robots.
“I think over time, this will come together. I don’t think we’re going to see any regulatory bodies mounting to block automation, but they are being appropriately cautious and we’re working closely with them to ensure what we’re doing is safe,”
Price says TuSimple is “quite aggressive” about how soon it can have a fully autonomous truck on the road. “We believe that we could be driver-out in the 2020 timeframe, at least in limited areas, assuming the regulatory support is there. I don’t expect trucks driving nationwide without drivers in 2020, but I think in certain areas it’s quite possible,” said Price. TuSimple is planning on real trucks in real fleets hauling real freight with its autonomous technology within the next year.
“Our autonomous technology we think is some of the best in the industry, if not the best,” said Price with confidence. “We think we’re ahead of Tesla, but time will tell if I’m correct.”