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TuSimple Trials Self-Driving Trucks Amid Trucker Squeeze

As the U.S. trucking industry faces a shortage of more than 80,000 drivers, according to the American Trucking Association, one company is hoping that it can one day fill the gaps by bringing its autonomous trucks nationwide.

Taking one step toward this ambitious endeavor, TuSimple said it successfully completed what it calls “the world’s first fully autonomous semi-truck run on open public roads without a human in the vehicle and without human intervention.”

The 80-mile trip took place on Dec. 22, with the upfitted Class 8 autonomous semi-truck traveling along the I-10 from a railyard in Tucson, Ariz. to a distribution center in the Phoenix metro area.

Along the journey, TuSimple said its Autonomous Driving System (ADS) navigated surface streets, traffic signals, on-ramps, off-ramps, emergency lane vehicles and highway lane changes in open traffic while naturally interacting with other motorists.

The 80-minute drive was part of an ongoing test program that will continue into 2022. The test was performed in close collaboration with the Arizona Department of Transportation and law enforcement.

The autonomous driving test was 100 percent operated by TuSimple’s ADS without a human on-board, without remote human control of the vehicle, and without traffic intervention. TuSimple’s Class 8 truck operated under favorable weather conditions between the hours of 9 p.m. and midnight.

TuSimple’s “Driver Out” pilot program was at least a year-and-a-half in the making, with the company performing 1,800 runs to the tune of 150,000 miles on this stretch of highway, which is a major freight route that runs from Los Angeles to Jacksonville, Fla.

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In a statement, the company referred to the program as a “critical first step” in scaling autonomous trucking operations on the TuSimple Autonomous Freight Network (AFN). The AFN includes TuSimple’s network shippers, carriers, railroads, freight brokers, fleet asset owners and truck hardware partners, and is designed to address the truck freight industry’s top challenges by enabling low-cost freight capacity as a service, while maintaining high standards for safety and fuel efficiency.

“By achieving this momentous technical milestone, we demonstrated the advanced capabilities of TuSimple’s autonomous driving system and the commercial maturity of our testing process, prioritizing safety and collaboration every step of the way. This test reinforces what we believe is our unique position at the forefront of autonomous trucking, delivering advanced driving technology at commercial scale,” TuSimple president and CEO Cheng Lu said in a statement.

“This year, we were laser-focused on putting our technology through a rigorous test on open public roads under real-world conditions, and to see all our hard work and dedication come together is extremely rewarding,” he added.

Currently, the startup operates a fleet of more than 50 autonomous trucks between Arizona and Florida. Overall, the trucks are built for the “middle mile” of truck freight—in which fixed, predictable and primarily highway routes make up the majority of total miles driven on a shipping route.

Founded in 2015, TuSimple went public on the Nasdaq in April, aiming to scale the development of commercial-ready, fully autonomous long-haul heavy-duty trucks. The company’s AI-based technology is designed so that trucks can see up to 1,000 meters and reduce fuel consumption by 10 percent or more relative to manually driven vehicles.

To ensure public safety throughout the Driver Out program, TuSimple worked alongside government regulators and law enforcement, implementing multiple other vehicles throughout the 80-mile run. TuSimple implemented its own survey vehicle to look for anomalies operating over five miles ahead of the truck, as well as an oversight vehicle trailing behind that was capable of putting the autonomous truck in a minimal risk condition (MRC). Local law enforcement vehicles followed at a distance of 0.5 miles as an extra layer of safety precaution.

The autonomous trucking startup isn’t the first company to achieve driverless operations in Arizona, which is a state with favorable autonomous vehicle testing and commercializing regulations that seeks to position itself as the leader in autonomous driving. Waymo, the autonomous driving arm of Google, has been running driverless robotaxi operations in Phoenix since October last year, and has previously done delivery tests in the area with Walmart, which completed a driverless pilot with Gatik.

TuSimple is currently operating retrofitted base trucks from Navistar, one of the company’s original equipment manufacturer (OEM) partners, but it plans to jointly develop semi-trucks specifically designed for autonomous operations by 2024 that it can sell to third parties, according to Lu.

The company isn’t alone in understanding that there may be a bigger need for autonomous trucks as drivers are in low availability.

Ahead of the holiday season, FedEx kicked off a collaboration with autonomous technology developer Aurora and medium-and heavy-duty vehicle manufacturers PACCAR to bring the driverless technology to its own linehaul trucking operations. When the shipping company reported first-quarter earnings in September, it noted a $450 million year over year increase in costs due to the constrained labor market. FedEx president and chief operating officer Raj Subramaniam said more than 600,000 packages a day were rerouted due to the labor shortages.

In December, another potential contender came into the fold as self-driving technology company Robotic Research raised $228 million, tapping outside investors for the first time to expand its autonomous trucks, buses and logistics vehicles business.

While TuSimple hopes to further break ground in the space on its own, it is banking on a partnership with one of the world’s largest computing technology providers to power its freight network.

As part of its expansion plans, TuSimple extended its current partnership with graphics processing unit and mobile computing chip developer Nvidia to design and engineer an advanced autonomous domain controller (ADC) for its Level 4 autonomous trucking applications. “Level 4” is a characterization from the standardization body SAE International signaling that the trucks require zero driver attention or intervention as long as they are operating in an approved geofenced area.

The ADC design will incorporate the Nvidia Drive Orin “system-on-a-chip (SoC),” an integrated chip which is specifically designed for AI-based autonomous driving applications. The collaboration with Nvidia is intended to accelerate TuSimple’s ability to scale its autonomous trucks on the AFN with a production-ready computing solution capable of handling both the requirements and the computational needs of TuSimple’s ADS.

The Nvidia Drive Orin SoC delivers 254 TOPS (trillion operations per second) of performance and functions as a central computer for intelligent vehicles—thus powering their safe autonomous driving capabilities. The chip is vital to the ADC, which itself serves as the trucks’ central computing unit that processes hundreds of TOPS, including perception, planning, and actuation functions.

“A high-performance, production-ready ADC is a critical piece to scaling our AFN, and we are taking a hands-on role to advance its development with the help of Nvidia,” Lu said. “We believe this move provides us a significant competitive advantage in speeding time to market and further extending our industry leadership position.”

TuSimple will own usage rights to the ADC reference design, including certain limited “first-use” provisions. The organization intends to work with third-party manufacturers for the production of the ADC.

“We have been strong advocates of TuSimple from the start, first as an Nvidia Inception member back in 2017, and now as they continue to blaze trails in the autonomous trucking industry,” said Gary Hicok, senior vice president of engineering at Nvidia. “TuSimple is moving from development using Nvidia GPUs to production based on Drive Orin—this new powerful and scalable ADC solution will help move the entire autonomous trucking industry forward.”