Autonomous Truck Startup TuSimple Completes 80-Mile Trip in a Class-8 Truck With No Human Onboard

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【Summary】Autonomous truck developer TuSimple has announced its successfully completed a 80-mile trip on public roads in one of its self-driving Class-8 trucks without any human intervention. The 80-mile autonomous route began at a rail yard in Tucson, Arizona and ended at a distribution center in Phoenix. TuSimple says it's the first ever fully-autonomous run by a class 8 truck on open public roads without intervention.

Eric Walz    Feb 05, 2022 8:20 AM PT
Autonomous Truck Startup TuSimple Completes 80-Mile Trip in a Class-8 Truck With No Human Onboard

Drivers in Arizona may have spotted a fully autonomous big rig with no driver behind the wheel traveling down the highway. That's because autonomous truck startup TuSimple has announced its successfully completed a 80-mile trip on public roads in one of its self-driving Class-8 trucks. 

The 80-mile autonomous route began at a railyard in Tucson, Arizona and ended at a distribution center in Phoenix. 

It marks the first time that TuSimple completed the journey without a human on board and zero intervention from a remote operator. The San Diego-based company says the trip was the first ever successful fully-autonomous run by a class 8 vehicle, or semi, on open public roads with no human intervention. 

The trip was completed at night earlier this month. By operating at night, autonomous truck fleets can be more efficient, increasing truck utilization from an average of 50% to around 80%, according to TuSimple.

TuSimple received approval and supervision from the Arizona Department of Transportation and local law enforcement to complete the driverless journey.

As pioneer in autonomous truck development, TuSimple is sort of in unchartered territory, as a large semi truck has never been operated before on public roads without a human onboard. Therefore additional safety measures were in place for the journey in Arizona.

A lead vehicle scouted the route about five miles ahead of the autonomous semi, making sure that the road was clear from obstacles. A second trailing vehicle following about one-half mile behind the truck was prepared to intervene if necessary, along with several unmarked police vehicles. 

TuSimple said its semi successfully navigated highway lane changes, traffic signals, on-ramps and off-ramps while "naturally interacting with other motorists."

"This test reinforces what we believe is our unique position at the forefront of autonomous trucking, delivering advanced driving technology at commercial scale," said TuSimple CEO Cheng Lu.

TuSimple was founded in 2015 with the goal of bringing level-4 autonomous driving technology to the trucking industry, which is poised for disruption with modern technology.  While many tech startups are focused on autonomous driving development for passenger vehicles, TuSimple is focused on development of Class-8 trucks for the shipping industry. 

From an engineering standpoint, developing autonomous driving software for traveling on long stretches of highway is an easier task than building self-driving passenger vehicles designed to navigate in a busy city with streets packed with other vehicles, pedestrians, bicyclists and other road users. 

TuSimple compares the driverless truck routes to a railroad, with trucks following set routes like railway links between fixed points.

The self-driving trucks are expected to disrupt the trucking industry, making shipping goods more efficient and cost effective. TuSimple says that drivers represent about 40% of all trucking operational costs and that a virtual driver "can be operated for significantly less." 

TuSimple also estimates that its autonomous driving technology saves about 10% on fuel-related costs compared to human-driven trucks. 

TuSimple says it has 70 autonomous trucks globally and two million miles of road testing completed as its refines its full-stack autonomous driving system for commercial deployment.

Much of TuSimple's technical focus is on its long-range perception system, which exceeds that of many self-driving vehicles being developed. The company's perception system is specifically designed for long-haul semi-trucks, which can weigh up to 80,000 pounds when fully loaded. Therefore, these trucks will need ample room to stop, if needed.

TuSimple claims its long-range AI-powered perception system can see 1,000 meters ahead, as well as 360 degrees around the truck, which is further than any other autonomous perception system being used today. 

The perception system uses a combination of LiDAR, radar and HD cameras. It allows the autonomous system to successfully navigate in nearly any driving condition, keeping a truck centered in a lane with an accuracy of 5 centimeters.

In July 2020, TuSimple announced the launch of a freight delivery service with some of the world's leading shipping companies, including United Parcel Service (UPS), Penske and U.S. Xpress. At the time, TuSimple said it was the world's first autonomous freight delivery service.

UPS announced that it bought a minority stake in TuSimple in Aug 2019. The company also revealed that it has been testing the TuSimple's autonomous trucks since May of 2019 on a busy freight route in Arizona. 

The UPS trucks delivery trucks are an ideal candidate for automation, according to TuSimple. Unlike human truck drivers that must stop to take breaks, autonomous trucks can operate on fixed highway routes 24 hours a day. 

In Sept 2020, TuSimple also announced a global partnership with the Traton Group, which is the commercial truck division of German automaker Volkswagen, on the development of self-driving trucks for the European market. TuSimple and Traton are aiming for SAE Level 4 automation, meaning that the trucks will require no human intervention for normal operation.

The collaboration is the first of its kind in Europe. As part of the partnership, the Traton Group took a minority stake in TuSimple. The companies did not disclose the details of the deal.

Before removing the driver from the cab, TuSimple uses a trained truck driver behind the wheel to monitor its operation at all times. In the passenger seat is a TuSimple engineer responsible to monitor the truck's autonomous driving systems and collect data.

The rollout of commercial self-driving trucks will help address the shortage of truck drivers in the industry, as well as making shipping goods more efficient. The driver shortage is expected to increase over the next decade and beyond, which gives TuSimple plenty of opportunity to scale its operations. 

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