TuSimple completes its first driverless autonomous truck run on public roads

TuSimple has completed its first run of an autonomously driving truck on public roads without a human in the vehicle. TuSimple achieved a milestone in its technology by autonomously driving the entire 80 mile run between a railyard in Tuscon, Arizona and a distribution center in Phoenix, without a single human intervention.

TuSimple has parking facilities in Tuscon, Lu, which makes it an ideal location for its future commercial operations because of the major freight route that runs from Los Angeles, California to Jacksonville, Florida. The focus of the pilot run was technological, not commercial. The company has performed over a thousand runs on this stretch of highway over the last eighteen months, and plans to continue testing its driver-out program into the future.

It is the logical next step in the evolution of our technology to have full commercial scale deployment. It is necessary to have one route and one type of vehicle that you can operate without a driver on the road, as well as the level of reliability that is required to take the driver out. That is significant R&D engineering work. It is no longer a science project if you can demonstrate that you can safely remove the driver from a commercial route. It takes a lot of engineering work and a lot of hard work from our team, but we are very confident that we will be the first to have full-scale commercial deployment of self-driving trucks.

Arizona has a good reputation for being a good place to do driver-out operations, and the startup is trying to position itself as the leader in the field. Since October last year, the self-drive arm of Alphabet has been operating in Phoenix. Lu thinks that urban driving is simpler than highway driving because of the slower speed limits.

The 80,000 pound Class 8 truck is more heavy and harder to control than a car, and it drives on the highway at much faster speeds. The safety implications are higher.

The pilot shows that TuSimple has achieved Level 4 technology, which is a system that is able to drive itself completely and will not require a human to take over. Lu says that many trucks actually do operate when the weather is good between the hours of 9 and midnight. The company says that the system navigates surface streets, traffic signals, on-ramps, emergency lane vehicles and highway lane changes in open traffic.

In case the truck came to an emergency stop, police vehicles followed at about a mile behind it. TuSimple implemented a survey vehicle to look for anomalies five miles ahead and an oversight vehicle half a mile behind that could put the truck in a minimal risk condition.

Lu said that public opinion and comfort with self-driving trucks is important for the industry to move forward. It is important to have a lot of safety precautions.

TuSimple is currently operating retrofitted base trucks from Navistar, one of the company's original equipment manufacturers partnerships which was announced last year, but it plans to develop semi trucks specifically designed for autonomously operated vehicles by 2024, according to Lu.

Lu said that commercializing driver-out technology means to create a solution that allows self-guided trucks to move freight from terminal to terminal at scale. We are using fully self-sufficient trucks to move freight with safety drivers. We can show we can do it without a safety driver on one route. To scale the number of trucks on the road without a driver, we need to add more reliability, which requires purpose-built trucks with OEM partners.

TuSimple has reservations for 6,875 trucks, and 100 of them have been reserved by the DHL Supply Chain. The Traton Group, Volkswagen AG's heavy truck business, has an agreement with TuSimple to co-develop self-driving trucks. TuSimple has minority stakes in both partners.

The first generation of the trucks will be built with a steering wheel for certain operations in the yard, like shifting, or the process of separating and shifting the tractor and trailer, which will initially still need to be done by hand.

Lu said that reaching L4 capabilities is what is required to solve the problem of lack of freight capacity. On the one hand, the demand for truck drivers and trucks continues to increase with e-commerce and the on-demand economy, but the supply side of things isn't looking pretty." We have a driver shortage, significant driver turnover, safety costs are getting higher, and of course, environmental concerns. The supply chain is being hampered by these things.

If you play this out without new technology, it won't get better, and you and I don't want to be truck drivers, our kids don't want to be truck drivers. We need to achieve Level 4.