SAN DIEGO - TuSimple said it will soon begin partnering on real-world autonomous freight deliveries without anyone in the vehicle.
“We’re on track for a ‘driver-out’ demonstration in 2021,” Cheng Lu, chief financial officer, told Fleet Owner in an interview during American Trucking Associations’ Management Conference & Exhibition.
Chuck Price, TuSimple’s chief product officer, said these will be actual commercial freight deliveries, and the company would receive a portion of the revenue. We know who [the motor carrier] is, but we are not saying yet.”
For TuSimple, it is the next logical step as it continues refining its technology through continual testing in the United States and China.
“It becomes very real for people when you can demonstrate [autonomous technology] safely on one or two commercial routes where you can actually take the driver out of the equation,” said Lu.
Third-five states allow testing and 20 states allow full commercial operations without a driver in the vehicle. “If you want to go driverless today you can do it. And people don’t realize that,” Lu said.
Price did not mince words when asked about the potential of the system.
“Our plan is to get the driver out, but even with the driver in [the vehicle], this is a Level 4 system, Price said. "Literally, the driver could be asleep. This is not something that requires a driver at the wheel. So the driver could be out of service; could be in the back sleeping.”
The TuSimple executives acknowledged autonomous driving is a complex subject that ellicits strong reactions. But they stressed at its core, this is about increased safety, productivity and up to a 10% gain in fuel efficiency.
It can be particularly beneficial to the longhaul truckload sector, Lu said, which faces the most difficulty recruiting and retaining drivers.
“It’s evolving very rapidly,” Price said of autonomous technology. “There’s an acceptance at the regulator level, which is a reflection of society that this is going to be a thing.”
Acceptance is also coming through several recent partnerships, including a two-week pilot program with the U.S. Postal Service in May that covered an 1,100-mile route between Phoenix and Dallas.
In August, UPS Inc. took a minority stake in TuSimple, which Lu called a "validation of the technology and a great use-case." He added the companies are partnering on autonomous deliveries - with drivers in the vehicle - on a daily basis in Arizona.
TuSimple’s own fleet is up to 41 in North America, and should reach 50 before the end of the year. It has about 250 employees in San Diego and Tucson, AZ., with almost an equal number in China.
At its booth in the ATA exhibit hall, TuSimple featured a time-lapse video documenting an autonomous test on the highway. There are two drivers in the truck and they follow strict protocols, Price said.
The one in the right seat continually monitors the system and is in constant communication with the colleague in the driver's seat, who then confirms what he or she is seeing in order to “track what the computer thinks is happening versus the reality,” Price said.
Drivers report back they feel more alert and aware of their surroundings, allowing them to be more “strategic in how they think about the drive,” he noted.