TuSimple’s big plan isn’t simple at all

May 21, 2021

John Bendel

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TuSimple, a self-driving truck startup, just announced it has reservations for 6,775 International LT trucks equipped with its autonomous driving system. Delivery of the trucks will begin in 2024, according to the TuSimple announcement.

TuSimple’s self-driving technology may or may not be steps ahead of self-driving competitors like Daimler, Embark Robotics, Ike Robotics, Plus, or Waymo. But TuSimple appears to be well ahead of the competition in establishing – or at the very least proposing – a national highway network where its self-driving trucks can be put to work. None of its competitors have offered so vast and specific a vision that could affect drivers across the country. To call TuSimple’s network proposal ambitious is an understatement. It could lead to profound changes in the truckload sector and the availability of jobs.

TuSimple – a name almost as unapt as Google or Yahoo! – is an autonomous truck developer launched in 2015 in China and the U.S., where it is headquartered in San Diego. The company also operates in Japan and Europe.

TuSimple also leads its competitors in self-promotion, keeping its name before the public – at least in the world of transportation and government. TuSimple’s ambitious plan will necessarily involve help from state governments and the feds.

The network TuSimple calls the Autonomous Freight Network will comprise terminals in major metropolitan areas near interstates.

Self-driving trucks will linehaul trailers on the interstate highways between cities. Fleets like UPS, Schneider, U.S. Xpress, Werner, Penske and McClane have either reserved TuSimple-equipped trucks, invested in the company, or are working with TuSimple to build a freight network.

The idea is to automate linehaul driving. Presumably, driverless trucks will exchange trailers at the metro-area hubs with human-driven trucks that provide local pickup and delivery service. Along with other claimed benefits, automated line haul will supposedly free carriers from the limitations of hours of service. Driverless trucks will be able to run around the clock, stopping only for refueling or recharging at network hubs. Reduced transit times have attracted the attention of fresh produce shippers, among others.

In an announcement last year, TuSimple said the network will roll out in three phrases. The first will link the cities of Phoenix, Tucson, El Paso, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio. TuSimple and other driverless truck developers already operate autonomous trucks with safety drivers along these corridors.

The second phase will connect the network with Los Angeles on the West Coast and Jacksonville, FL, on the East Coast. Phase three, according to the TuSimple release “will expand driverless operations nationwide adding major shipping routes throughout the lower 48 states.” TuSimple-equipped trucks belonging to fleets will have access to the AFN. TuSimple will provide driverless tractor service to infrequent users who do not have TuSimple-equipped trucks.

According to TuSimple, the network will be operational in 2024, though it’s hard to imagine all the necessary legal steps will be done by then. Barring overarching federal legislation, individual states will probably have to change current rules to accommodate driverless trucks, even in the limited, highway-specific operations proposed.

It will be a long, complicated haul for a company that calls itself “simple.”

Assuming everything falls into place – a big assumption – what will it mean for drivers?

Clearly, success for TuSimple will mean fewer driving jobs. Driverless trucks in the context of an expansive network like the Autonomous Freight Network will necessarily reduce the number of drivers needed, especially among the biggest truckload carriers most likely to use it.

The effect won’t be immediate. It will take time for carriers – particularly smaller ones – to realize and take advantage of the possibilities. Those possibilities could include fewer of the driver teams now used to keep freight moving on long hauls. Driverless trucks will not stop between terminals for food, bathroom breaks, or required rest times. They will only need to refuel – or recharge – at terminals before hitting the road again. Since hours of service will not apply at all, driverless trucks could cross the continent in considerably less time than an individual driver or a team.

Just last week, TuSimple reported a test load of fresh watermelons (with a safety driver onboard) from Nogales, Ariz., to Oklahoma took 14 hours – 10 hours less than the usual 24 hours it takes an individual driver. That’s a stunning number with extraordinary implications. Driverless truck networks could substantially accelerate truck transportation across the board – the longer the haul, the greater the impact. Depending on the cost, big carriers could use the network to maximum advantage, undercutting smaller carrier rates. They also could steal freight from slow, cheap rail intermodal and put more freight on the highways.

Drivers will still be necessary.

Lots of shippers will require a driver with the load. It can be a matter of special equipment or dangerous or particularly valuable freight. Moreover, regional loads may not line up with available driverless lanes. There, truckload will play to its traditional strength – direct, door-to-door pickup and delivery.

Considering the current attrition rate among drivers, especially new ones, the impact of fewer jobs will be muted – at least initially. Beyond that, though, questions loom. Will competition for fewer jobs hold down pay for dedicated, professional truckers?

We’ll find out. Meanwhile, there’s a long way to go before something as ambitious as the Autonomous Freight Network is actually up and running. LL

TuSimple Autonomous Freight Network rollout map
TuSimple’s Autonomous Freight Network is planned to roll-out in three phases.

Phase I (2020-21) is expected to offer service between the cities of Phoenix; Tucson, Ariz.; El Paso, Texas; Dallas; Houston; and San Antonio.

Phase II (2022-23) is expected to expand network service from Los Angeles to Jacksonville, Fla., and connect the East Coast with the West Coast.

Phase III (2023-24) is expected to expand driverless operations nationwide, adding major shipping routes throughout the lower 48 states allowing customers to utilize their own TuSimple equipped autonomous trucks on the network by 2024.

 

John Bendel is Land Line’s contributing editor-at-large. A former trucker, former editor at National Lampoon and two trucking magazines, John is an author, photographer, and freelancer. His work has appeared in the New York Times, The Washington Post, and many U.S. newspapers.