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UPS Investment in Driverless Trucking Could Change Future of Logistics

UPS is making a big push into the realm of driverless trucking.

UPS Ventures, the venture capital arm of the logistics player, announced its minority stake in self-driving trucking startup TuSimple, a unicorn that’s raised more than $1 billion in funding. The venture capital organization said its goal with the investments is to test the capabilities and limitations offered by a fully autonomous delivery fleet.

The stake, announced Tuesday, gives UPS more than a rooting interest in the pair’s ongoing project in Arizona, in which TuSimple trucks are being tested for integration into the delivery giant’s considerable logistics network.

According to UPS chief strategy and transformation officer Scott Price, the investment further signals the company’s desire to own a controlling interest in the future of driverless trucking.

“UPS is committed to developing and deploying technologies that enable us to operate our global logistics network more efficiently,” Price explained. “While fully autonomous, driverless vehicles still have development and regulatory work ahead, we are excited by the advances in braking and other technologies that companies like TuSimple are mastering.

“All of these technologies offer significant safety and other benefits that will be realized long before the full vision of autonomous vehicles is brought to fruition—and UPS will be there, as a leader implementing these new technologies in our fleet,” Price added.

UPS and TuSimple are working to further understand what it will take to implement “Level 4 [L4] Autonomous” trucking into its current network—in other words, whether or not it is possible to have truly driverless trucks towing UPS trailers on the road in the near future. The L4 designation indicates that a self-driving vehicle’s computer system is total control at all times, with no human intervention.

Currently, the law requires a driver to be present in the vehicle at all times as a backup safety measure, a situation that will likely change only when autonomous driving technology is proven to be safer and more efficient than installing humans behind the wheel. At this time, Starsky Robotics is the only player in the space to have conducted a successful road test using fully unmanned driverless trucks.

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“We are honored by UPS’s strategic investment and their vote of confidence in TuSimple, this proves their commitment to staying at the forefront of innovation,” TuSimple founder, president and central technology officer Xiaodi Hou said in a statement. “TuSimple is confident that it can accelerate bringing the first self-driving truck to market to increase road safety.”

TuSimple was founded in 2015 with the mission to reduce the danger, cost and pollution involved in trucking by leveraging autonomous driving technology. Today, the startup is primarily working on providing logistics companies like UPS with self-driving class 8 tractor-trailers, meaning trucks capable of a gross value weight rating of 33,000 pounds.

TuSimple claims that its technology could potentially cut average transportation costs by 30 percent, a claim that will be tested as UPS works to integrate the startup’s technology into its “Global Smart Logistics Network,” an initiative to infuse the shipping company’s logistics network with investments powered by internet of things (IoT) and artificial intelligence technologies like TuSimple’s.

The investment comes as the trucking industry looks to fill out its numbers in light of a driver shortage, with some looking to recruit outside of the traditionally male demographic.

Recently, TuSimple was also tapped by the USPS for a two-week pilot program in which TuSimple self-driving trucks hauled USPS trailers along the 1,000 miles of road between its distribution centers in Phoenix and Dallas.