Many people speculate about the arrival of self-driving cars, but the future of self-driving trucks is arguably even more important. Long-haul trucking is still at the heart of the economy with people driving long hours on monotonous highways to ensure that products and packages are delivered in a timely manner.
The economics of long-haul truck driving are staggering. On average, it costs $1.69 to operate a long-haul truck per mile, of which approximately 40 percent goes to pay the driver’s salary. There is a shortage of truck drivers – estimates range from 50,000 to 100,000 – and experts expect that number to be compounded as the e-commerce sector continues to expand. Trucking also contributed to over 4,700 fatalities in 2017 alone.
TuSimple has set out to change these statistics. The company is seeking to transform long-haul trucking by using AI (artificial intelligence) to create self-driving trucks. TuSimple’s headquarters are split between San Diego and Shanghai, with its R&D lab concentrated in San Diego and test operation facilities in Tucson. The company currently has about 500 employees and is currently the largest and most advanced self-driving truck start-up.
How do TuSimple’s self-driving trucks work? Inside each truck is what TuSimple calls a “super computer” with hundreds of different AI modules doing a myriad of tasks at a rapid pace. These tasks include distinguishing between types of cars, learning the speed of objects around the truck, and assessing road conditions. TuSimple uses a camera forward model with an eight-camera array and other sensors that can detect cars, pedestrians, and obstacles up to 1,000 meters away. While TuSimple is confident in the self-driving abilities of its trucks, every truck being tested in the U.S. has a certified driver and safety engineer on board – as a precaution.
The company claims it can reduce average purchased transportation costs by 30 percent, and it has secured some of the most coveted customers in the industry. UPS initially partnered with TuSimple to better understand how Level 4 autonomous trucking – an industry term meaning high automation – could work within its network. But in May of 2019, TuSimple and UPS began testing routes from Phoenix to Tucson to see if they could provide better and more efficient service. Since then, TuSimple has been hired by UPS for this route.
Also in May, TuSimple started a two-week testing partnership with USPS to complete the more than 1,000-mile trip between its Dallas and Phoenix distribution centers. According to TuSimple, the trips were all completed ahead of schedule and without incident.
TuSimple was founded by Caltech trained scientist Xiaodi Hou and has some noteworthy investors such as Nvidia, a leading maker of advanced computing systems for self-driving cars. Nvidia is also a technology partner. Other notable investors include Sina Corp., the parent company of social media platform operator Weibo, as well as UPS, CDH Investments, ZP Capital, and Mando Corp, a South Korean auto parts supplier.
Despite its impressive fundraising and client roster, there is intense competition. Waymo, owned by Alphabet, as well as Embark, Starsky Robotics, Kodiak, Ike, Thor Trucks, Pronto.ai, and Aurora are all competing in the commercialized robot trucking industry.
We are years away from highways being filled with self-driving trucks. Nevertheless, the fact that many companies are investing in driverless trucking technology and that TuSimple’s tests have been so successful give us reason to believe we may be seeing them sooner than we think. Driverless trucks won’t only change the trucking industry; they will revolutionize the entire economy.