TuSimple plans to start running “driver-out” autonomous-truck pilots by the end of the year, removing the driver for runs over an 80-mile route between Phoenix and Tucson.
That’s just part of what we learned in a recent interview with TuSimple officials and from its third-quarter earnings call.
Company officials expect to perform the initial driver-out runs before year-end and to complete the pilot program over the coming months. The driver-out pilot will consist of multiple runs performed over multiple weeks.
“I recently participated in one of our tests, and I can tell you that it was amazing to see our next-generation trucks embark on the terminal-to-terminal run,” said Cheng Lu, TuSimple’s president and CEO, during the earnings call. “My trip, like the vast majority of our test runs, including zero disengagements and demonstrated just how far our technology development has come.” (A disengagement happens when an autonomous vehicle gets confused and has to hand over control of the car to a safety driver.)
Cheng Lu emphasized that the driver-out pilot product “is not meant to be a demo or PR stunt that once we are done, it's over and onward. Everything we're doing directly with the driver-out pilot program translates to full-scale commercial deployment.”
Jim Mullen, chief administrative and legal officer (and a former acting administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration), also spoke about the driver-out pilot runs in an interview with HDT during the American Trucking Associations’ Management Conference and Exhibition. He said the driver-out pilots will run on an actual revenue route for a major retailer. “As we get closer to 2024, we’ll replicate that in other lanes, on other routes,” he said.
TuSimple’s driver-out trucks will be navigating city streets, not just interstate highways.
“We navigate surface streets every day,” he said, noting that the Tucson destination is about 3 miles from the highway. “I think that’s a key differentiator.”
How TuSimple Works
How can TuSimple trucks negotiate city streets?
“We believe it’s the camera technology that allows us to see better, further,” rather than relying on sensors such as Lidar alone, Mullen explained.
The camera and sensor data combine with the HD mapping to make this possible. The system takes all those data points, Mullen said, and is “making dozens of decisions per second on how it’s going to navigate the roads. This is a differentiation between [TuSimple] and humans. We can see 360 degrees nonstop and make decision on a second-by-second basis. Even a well-trained driver who’s using the SMITH system and constantly scanning between his mirrors and the road ahead, he said, still take a few seconds to complete that scan.
The sensor package is robust, he said. “Where we spend a lot of time is working on edge cases, how to account for noncompliant human drivers.”
As an example, he pointed to the need to deal with furniture that’s fallen out of vehicles and is lying in the road. Because of all the data the system has been accumulating on the road, he said, it has lots of data about what items an autonomous truck may encounter. “Our engineers get excited when we see something new,” he said, citing a recent example of a kiddy pool.
“What makes the driver-out pilot program so challenging is that we’re solving for both known and unknown factors that we might encounter on public roads,” said Cheng Lu. “This includes noncompliant motors, unplanned road construction and changing driving conditions, all of which must be continuously monitored and accounted for in real time.”
Safety, Regulations, and Autonomous Trucks
Asked about what excites him about the development of autonomous technology, Mullen said he’s most excited about the safety component.
“With my previous career with a motor carrier, I ran the safety dept for 10,000 drivers, and I spent two years at FMCSA. There is no doubt in our minds this is going to improve highway safety. 95% of accidents are human error. This technology doesn’t get distracted, it doesn’t get impaired or fatigued. And we don’t do [unsafe] things that some human drivers do.”
He pointed out that in the approximately 4 million miles the company has run in autonomous mode, it has had zero at-fault accidents.
TuSimple recently announced the initial results of its telematics study with Geotab. The primary study results indicate that its Level four technology significantly reduces harsh driving events relative to human drivers.
“This third-party study result is significant as harsh driving events are well-established precursors to accidents,” Cheng Lu said.
The regulatory environment for autonomous trucks, Mullen said, is “all over the map. You have to look at both federal and state by state. On the federal side we could take the human out today and be in full compliance.”
That’s probably because no one thought when they were writing those regulations that you would have to make a rule that there must be a driver behind the wheel.
However, Mullen said, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is working on some rulemakings on how to approach certain regulations that autonomous systems can’t do without a human, such as putting out triangles if the truck is stopped on the side of the road. (Although he said TuSImple is working on some of the same problems; could you have a device on the back of a trailer that could drop the safety triangles?)
However, Mullen said, those changes in regulations aren’t necessary for the company to commercialize, and he believes we will see those addressed by 2025.
On the state level, he said, there are a number of states that will allow level-4 autonomy without the driver today. “If you look at the sunbelt from California to Florida, California is the only state that doesn’t. We’re working with all our competitors and stakeholders to get California [changed]. So where we visualize the commercial stage, the regulatory landscape is good.”
TuSimple has partnered with Navistar as its OEM partner for commercialization in the U.S. Plans are for Navistar to develop a purpose-built truck, designed for TuSimple’s autonomous system, with the first ones coming off the assembly line by the middle of 2024.
With a shortage of the computer chips needed for regular commercial trucks, much less the additional technology that autonomous trucks need, what is the current supply-chain crisis with computer chips doing to the development and commercialization process?
In response to a question on the earnings call, Cheng Lu said TuSimple is a “priority partner” for Navistar, but acknowledged that the company hasn’t received the full 25 trucks it ordered earlier this year.
“We're starting to receive the trucks, and we believe we'll get what we ordered at beginning of this year, hopefully by the end of this year. So in a way, these truck purchases are almost becoming sort of trucks for next year, and that's OK.”
This has no impact on the driver-out pilot, however, Cheng Lu said.
“In the longer term, one of the biggest challenges we see to the scale deployment of autonomous technology is the supply chain maturity. And that really revolves around key Tier one components like the computer, autonomous domain control, or redundant actuation, steering and braking. And so there's a little chicken-and-egg that happens in this, because Tier 1s don't want to commit to investments without orders. And that's something that we have identified as one of the risks, and so we are taking steps to address that.”
Over the coming quarters, Cheng Lu said, expect announcements in terms of TuSimple investing more heavily in the supply chain “to ensure that we can meet the time line that we talked about.”
In the meantime, TuSimple is retrofitting existing trucks and has about 50 in its fleet, hauling freight daily for shippers and motor carriers in addition to being used for testing.
TuSimple’s approach to autonomous trucking operations involves operating on specific routes for which it has developed a high-definition mapping, what it calls it Autonomous Freight Network. It predominantly operates in Arizona and Texas, both states with regulations friendly to autonomous-vehicle development.
In the third quarter, the company added 1,400 miles to its map network, for a total of 10,000 miles. And the pace of mapping is also increasing, Cheng Lu said.
Over the last two and a half years, TuSimple has accumulated more than 160,000 miles of paid autonomous freight haulage for UPS's North American Air Freight division.
The company continues to develop new autonomous lanes for UPS. It recently expanded its HD maps from Dallas to UPS terminals in Orlando and Charlotte, ahead of schedule. This represents a nearly coast-to-coast autonomous network for UPS NAF, according to the company.
Another trucking company TuSimple has been working with is U.S. Xpress, a major truckload carrier based in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and one known for being on the leading edge of technology adoption. Earlier this year, it announced it had made an investment in the autonomous-truck company. It has routes with predictable lanes and runs a lot of teams. “That’s a great spot for this,” Mullen said.
There’s also a place for it in less-than-truckload, he said, where the hauls are not as long but they are high-volume and repetitious.
“Some of these folks are talking about launching dozens if not hundreds of trucks at facilities,” he said. So far TuSimple is operating in the dry van and refrigerated space, “but we’ll get to doubles and all that.”
In the longer run, he said, there are also factors to consider in implementing autonomous technology beyond the truck itself. That’s one reason the company is engaged in hauling real-world freight.
“We think we need to build a business case to prove to shippers and motor carriers that this is a viable product that can be commercialized, and we think the best way to do that is to do it ourselves. And there are a lot of unanswered questions about how the whole freight ecosystem is going to intertwine with autonomous trucks.”
For instance, true driverless trucks may be able to get from terminal to terminal, but what happens once they get to their destination?
“We see at least in the early on you would segregate the AV trucks to pull into a lane and then humans will get involved. For things like refueling, you’ll see the AV truck have a segregated area and have humans fueling.”
Of course, commercialization isn’t just about the technology or the ability to actually build the trucks in a time of chip shortages. The big question is return on investment. Mullen said that’s easy.
“Safety is the key component,” he said. “It’s safer, it’s more productive, it’s more reliable, it’s greener — we’ve shown a 10% mpg improvement.”
In fact, for UPS autonomous miles driven, in the 55- to 68-mph operating band, they saw 13% fuel savings relative to human operators.
“When you look at all those factors, people ask what is the ROI, we think even with incremental [added] costs on the tractor you’re going to hit your ROI in six to eight months. It’s going to change the supply chain.”