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TuSimple's CEO says the startup's head start over rivals like Waymo and Aurora has made it the leader in the race to build self-driving semi trucks

  • TuSimple is developing an automated-driving system for semi trucks.
  • The startup was founded in 2015, before rivals like Ike and Aurora were launched, and before Waymo announced it was working on autonomous trucks.
  • TuSimple CEO Cheng Lu told Business Insider that head start has allowed the company to build a lead in technology, manufacturing partnerships, and commercialization strategy.
  • Are you a current or former TuSimple employee? Do you have an opinion about what it's like to work there? Contact this reporter at [email protected], on Signal at 646-768-4712, or via his encrypted email address [email protected]
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

The autonomous-vehicle industry is devoting more attention to heavy-duty trucks as its robotaxi and consumer car ambitions face technological roadblocks. A driver shortage has bolstered the business case for computer-operated semis, and their highway-heavy routes eliminate many of the challenges involved in spotting pedestrians and predicting how they'll move.

TuSimple has focused on big rigs since it was founded in 2015, giving it a head start that CEO Cheng Lu told Business Insider has allowed it to build a lead over Waymo and other competitors. Waymo started testing its automated-driving technology in semi trucks in 2017, a spokesperson for the company said, and many of the top startups working on autonomous trucks, like Aurora Innovation and Ike, launched in the years after TuSimple closed its first funding round.

"We are the first mover in this space," Lu said in an interview. And, he said, no other company has demonstrated automated-driving capabilities for trucks on both highways and residential streets that match TuSimple's.

The Waymo spokesperson said the company has been able to apply the lessons it learned from testing its automated-driving system in consumer vehicles, which it has been doing since 2009, to heavy-duty trucks. The spokesperson also said that, after more than a decade of testing its technology on public roads, it has identified and solved problems younger autonomous-vehicle firms have not yet encountered.

While it's difficult to compare self-driving systems, TuSimple has sold some of the biggest names in trucking and logistics on its technology. The startup is already delivering packages for UPS in Arizona and Texas, and has partnerships with US Xpress, Penske, and McLane. Those firms will help TuSimple expand its delivery network to the entire mainland US, which the company hopes to do by 2024.

Lu said TuSimple won over its partners with detailed presentations on its technology and, more importantly, rides in trucks driven by its software and hardware.

"We really have folks who fell asleep riding in our truck," Lu said. "And that's good. The more boring this truck is, the better it is."

Though  TuSimple's automated-driving system has a firm grasp on the basics of guiding a semi, Lu said the company needs to improve its reliability and create more robust backup systems before it can drive without a safety operator behind the who can take over if the computer makes a mistake. TuSimple is aiming to begin driverless tests next year.

One problem TuSimple won't have to solve is manufacturing. In partnering with Navistar and Volkswagen's Traton unit, the startup has a path to reliable, large-scale production only Waymo, which is working with Daimler, comes close to matching, Lu said.

By 2024, TuSimple plans to sell purpose-built autonomous trucks. On that front, "we believe we're also the furthest ahead," Lu said.

Are you a current or former TuSimple employee? Do you have an opinion about what it's like to work there? Contact this reporter at [email protected], on Signal at 646-768-4712, or via his encrypted email address [email protected]

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