As some autonomous tech companies shut down ops, start-ups are clamoring to take their place.

October 2019

John Bendel

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A company named TuSimple has emerged as the new leader in driverless truck development. At least you can get that impression from media coverage. It may or may not be the case. Either way, its goal like that of all autonomous truck efforts is to replace you in the driver’s seat – to eliminate the driver’s seat altogether.

In August, UPS announced an investment in the San Diego-based startup that has deep roots in China. They described it as a minority stake. Even so, it was a good sign for TuSimple, which Forbes said was “on the fast track” to an “autonomous big rig.” TuSimple and its founder Xiaodi Hou (pronounced Yowdee Hoo) were featured in a cover story.

Turns out TuSimple had been moving UPS trailers between Tucson and Phoenix since May along with paying freight from 16 other companies, including the U.S. Postal Service. TuSimple is running 15 trucks, Internationals and Peterbilts. As the Forbes story attests, TuSimple is attracting attention. In fact, the startup is valued at over $1 billion – lots more than any other startup in the field. They’re hoping their paying freight operation will be bringing in $1 million a month by the end of the year. But even that much will be tiny compared to the $175 million of investor money they’re spending their way through.

So what’s the big deal with TuSimple? First, the company claims its technology can “see” half-a-mile ahead on the road, considerably farther than its competitors. According to TuSimple, their technology also outperforms the competition in heavy rain on slick roadways.

TuSimple uses a combination of devices to accomplish this. They include nine cameras, two lidar sensors, and radar. The company doesn’t argue about which technology is best as some do. TuSimple uses them all.

TuSimple uses something called deep learning (see sidebar) to analyze information from its trucks, among other sources. The company uses that data to fine-tune its technology. Deep learning allows developers to look out for things its trucks have already experienced. It also helps imagine situations that haven’t occurred but conceivably could. TuSimple is not the only autonomous truck developer using deep learning, but they were reportedly the first.

Two other entrants in the Self-Driving Truck Derby we haven’t written about here are Ike Robotics and Kodiak Robotics. Each has its own strategic approach.

Ike Robotics

When Uber shut down its self-driving truck program, some of its engineers launched their own effort. San Francisco-based Ike Robotics is named for President Dwight Eisenhower, known as Ike, who launched the Interstate Highway System. The interstates made trucking a true coast-to-coast, border-to-border industry, eclipsing the once mighty railroads.

Ike Robotics is making a dash toward commercial driverless trucks by not worrying about details like turns. Ike trucks will steer along the open road, and that’s all they’ll need to do.

“We do not want a single turn off the highway,” one Ike founder told Wired Magazine.

A driver will presumably drive the Ike truck to the side of the highway, get out, and send it on its way. At the other end of the trip the Ike truck will pull over and another driver will take control.

Not a bad plan. Driverless trucking when it does debut will be on just such line-hauls between interstate exits. Ike figures why waste time and any of its $52 million start-up funding on anything else. These guys even bought existing autonomous-driving software so they wouldn’t have to write code from the ground up. Wherever the goal for commercial driverless trucking is, they plan to be there first.

Kodiak Robotics

Another startup by ex-Uber techies, Kodiak, started out with $40 million in August of 2018. More recently they joined other autonomous truck developers in commercial hauling for actual revenue as they gather data from their test trucks. Mountain View, Calif.-based Kodiak has set up operations in Texas with test drivers along, of course.

These three companies join a group of others in driverless trucking, including slightly more familiar names like Waymo, Embark, Starsky and Tesla, which reportedly plans to make its electric truck now in development self-driving. This bunch joins a group of even more familiar names like Volvo and Daimler.

Daimler kicked off the current era of driverless truck publicity with two spectacular media events in 2014. The company demonstrated two versions of what it carefully called autonomous (never driverless) trucks – a Mercedes in Germany and a Freightliner in Nevada. In the wake of that drama, other truck makers including Volvo hurriedly announced or demonstrated driverless progress of their own. To date, no one has topped the dazzling events staged by Daimler.

Since then, though, the independent startups have made the most public noise and gathered the most coverage. Daimler and Volvo have been relatively quiet. That hardly means these truck-building giants are making no progress. In fact not long ago, Daimler established an Autonomous Technology Group, though we’ve seen few news releases about what’s going on there. Unlike startups running on investor money, these folks have no need to show progress to the general public.

But it’s a sure bet that both Daimler and Volvo, not to mention Paccar and Navistar, are indeed making progress on self-driving trucks. All of which makes it less than a sure bet that TuSimple, despite its recent great coverage, is really the leader of the self-driving pack.

We’ll see. LL

John Bendel

John Bendel is Land Line’s contributing editor-at-large. A former trucker, former editor at National Lampoon, and longtime truck writer, John is an author, photographer, and freelancer for New York Times. There’s more, but in short, his insight and matchless style of writing makes “Gizmos and Gears” a runaway reader favorite.