Let’s say you had developed a workable self-driving vehicle that could haul freight over highways and byways. You might think that the best way to test your new invention would be to introduce it to the public and make a big fuss over this great innovation.
But that’s not what just happened. In February 2019, a San Diego startup called TuSimple, with Chinese backers, raised enough money – $95 million in Series D funding based on a valuation of $1 billion – to expand its commercial fleet of fully autonomous semi-trucks. These driverless vehicles can navigate from depot to depot with no human intervention.
TuSimple promises its clients that driverless trucks will slash the average shipping cost in a tractor-trailer by 30 percent. The company is banking on its focus on customizing programs to specific customer needs.
Dr. Xiaodi Hou is TuSimple’s founder, President, and Chief Technology Officer (CTO). The man is nothing if not visionary:
“It is exciting to think that before many people will ride in a robo-taxi, their mail and packages may be carried in a self-driving truck.”
The Chinese CTO was all business when it came to the U.S. mail delivery deal:
“Performing for the USPS on this pilot in this particular commercial corridor gives us specific use cases to help us validate our system, and expedite the technological development and commercialization progress.”
By May, the United States Postal Service (USPS) had partnered with TuSimple and started a two-week pilot program to deliver mail between Dallas, Texas, and Phoenix, Arizona, a distance of 1,000 miles:
“The program will involve five round trips totaling over 2,100 miles, estimated at about 45 hours of driving, and will pass through major interstates spanning Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.”
The two weeks of testing included human backups for safety: a driver and an engineer were on board and on hand in case things went horribly wrong. USPS claims that no tax dollars are being spent to test its driverless delivery trucks – all funding comes from postage sales and revenues from other products.
The TuSimple trucks have been making daily deliveries in Arizona. As of August 15, UPS, which announced it made a minority investment in the freight delivery startup, has contracted loads on a 115-mile stretch between Phoenix and Tucson.
And almost no one has been the wiser until now.
TuSimple is road-testing its computer vision system. Currently, the autonomous fleet trucks use an array of eight cameras that use lidar and radar to see 360 degrees (a full circle) for 1,000 meters (3,280 feet).
The USPS contract was “an important milestone” for TuSimple to roll out test robotic trucks in Texas:
“TuSimple will run a series of its self-driving trucks for 22 hours each, which includes overnight driving, along the I-10, I-20 and I-30 corridors to make the trip through Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. The freight that flows along I-10 corridor accounts for 60 percent of the total economic activity in the United States.”
The freight-moving startup has announced ambitious plans: to deploy its commercial autonomous truck fleet operations in late 2020 to 2021.
Believe it or not, there are six levels of vehicle autonomy, from 0 being none at all to 6 being 100% automated. Because USPS employs two human safeguards per TuSimple truck, the company is operating at Level 3:
“Level 3 vehicles have ‘environmental detection’ capabilities and can make informed decisions for themselves, such as accelerating past a slow-moving vehicle. But―they still require human override.”
One of the top investors in TuSimple is Sina Corporation, the tech company widely recognized for developing Weibo, the second-most popular Chinese social media platform after WeChat. Both Communist state-ruled platforms are being scrutinized by outsiders for privacy and other human rights violations.
Some people call Weibo the Chinese Twitter. Micro-bloggers themselves provide the information their eavesdropping, data-vacuuming government uses to anticipate and counteract planned protests, monitoring all communications.
Regardless of the unsavory reputation that China online tech has today, TuSimple, with its ample financial backing, is forging ahead with its plans to dominate the robotic delivery truck business.
For example, next month, in September 2019, a course titled “Autonomous Vehicle Driver and Operations Specialist” will be offered at Pima Community College (PCC) in Tucson, Arizona, courtesy of a partnership program with – who else? – TuSimple. Enrollees must have a Class A Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) and complete five courses covering technology deployed in self-driving trucks and building on knowledge they already have from their CDL experience.
Robert Brown is the Director of Public Affairs at TuSimple. He said the future where robots serve us completely isn’t quite here yet:
“Human drivers will have to interact with our vehicles for the foreseeable future.”
Chuck Price is the chief product officer at TuSimple and explained how corporate leadership is listening to their financial supporters:
“Investors spoke with their pocketbooks. We are one of the only truck autonomation companies that is willing to give rides in our vehicles. We’re throwing trucks into crazy traffic and investors see that. They come away believing that what we say is true – this thing is behaving properly in some crazy, real-world situations.”
Encouraged by their successful (if secretive) testing, TuSimple is planning to hold another fundraiser later this year.
Would you trust your package – or a loved one – to a driverless vehicle?