There’s a shortage of truckers, but TuSimple thinks it has a solution: no driver needed

13th August, 2021.      //   General Interest  // 


Currently, there is a truck driver shortage in the United States and across the world, which has been worsened by the pandemic’s e-commerce boom.

Autonomous trucks are one answer to the problem, and many firms are competing to be the first to launch one. TuSimple, located in San Diego, is one of them.

TuSimple, which was founded in 2015, has completed almost 2 million miles of road testing with its 70 prototype vehicles in the United States, China, and Europe. TuSimple has agreements in place with two of the world’s major truck manufacturers, Navistar in the United States and Traton, Volkswagen’s trucking division, in Europe, to develop and build completely autonomous versions, which it aims to debut by 2024.


No sleep 

TuSimple’s most recent road test consisted of transporting fresh produce 951 miles from Nogales, Arizona, to Oklahoma City. A human driver managed the pickup and dropoff, but the truck drove itself for the most of the journey — from Tucson to Dallas.

“Today, because the system is not fully ready, we have a safety driver and a safety engineer on board at all times when we’re testing, but we drove in full autonomy: the driver wasn’t touching the wheel,” TuSimple’s president and CEO, Cheng Lu, stated.

The voyage took 14 hours instead of the typical 24 hours with a human driver, owing to the fact that a truck does not need to sleep. “In the United States, a driver is only allowed to work 11 hours a day. When our first pair of drivers had to cease working because they had over their 11-hour limit, we simply had a handoff “Lu said. That, of course, undermines the benefit of an autonomous system, so the plan is that once TuSimple’s trucks are on the market, no one will be need to ride along.

Unlike self-driving cars, which are still a long way off from becoming widely accessible, TuSimple trucks will only be allowed to operate on highways that have been meticulously mapped using the company’s own software.

“We collect data from the roads, and we create this very detailed, high definition map of each route. That adds another layer of safety for the vehicles,” said Lu. As a result, TuSimple’s trucks will be able to self-drive only over these pre-mapped trade lines, dubbed “virtual railways” by Lu.

According to the firm, in the United States, 80 percent of products move via only 10% of the country’s commerce corridors, thus even selective mapping may capture a significant amount of the market. TuSimple is presently mapping routes between Arizona and Texas, with the goal of having routes mapped across the country by 2024.

Its ambitions, however, are contingent on state legislation, as several jurisdictions presently prohibit autonomous truck testing on public highways.


Happier drivers?

The technology will add $50,000 to the price of a vehicle, bringing the total cost to over $200,000. According to Lu, this is still less expensive than hiring a human driver.

“If you take $50,000 and divide it by 1 million miles, the average lifespan of a truck, that means you’re adding five cents per mile. But you’re saving the cost of a human driver, which based on average US wages is about $80,000 to $120,000 per year — or 80 cents to $1.20 per mile. Today, the direct labor cost is about 50% of the cost of operating a truck,” he explained.

According to Lu, this does not imply that driverless trucks would eliminate jobs. TuSimple claims that by focusing on the “middle mile,” rather than the collection and delivery of products, it can increase freight capacity without increasing driver demand, while also safeguarding current employment. “A UPS driver is dropping off 200 packages a day — that’s not what autonomy is meant for. We believe that every driver will be able to retire as a driver, even if they enter the workforce today,” Lu remarked.

TuSimple, on the other hand, wants to take over the routes between airports and distribution hubs, which include long lengths of tedious driving.

“Take Phoenix to El Paso: that’s a six-hour drive. A person cannot make the round trip, because it’s more than 11 hours. But the truck can go back and forth all day, the most mundane job that drivers don’t want to do. That means you free up that human driver to do the first and the last mile (pickup and delivery).They get to work a full day, which is a more efficient use of their time, and they get to go home at night to their family,” Lu explained.


No distractions

TuSimple is planned its first completely autonomous testing, without a human safety driver in the cabin, before the end of the year, despite Lu’s assertion that both the software and the hardware need to be improved. The outcome of these testing will determine whether the firm will be able to fulfill its 2024 objective of launching its own vehicles. According to Lu, 7,000 reservations have been made in the United States alone.

TuSimple competes with well-known companies like Google’s Waymo and Uber’s Aurora, but those companies are working on a broader variety of self-driving vehicles, including passenger cars. TuSimple, like Plus and Embark in the United States, focuses solely on autonomous trucks.

TuSimple, according to Grayson Brulte of consulting company Brulte & Co., is on the right route. “The biggest competitive advantage that TuSimple has over its competitors is that their technology was purpose-built for trucking. They’re not trying to port an autonomy system built for passenger vehicles in dense urban environments to trucking or to build a virtual driver which can both drive passenger vehicles and class-8 trucks. These are different skills and different systems altogether,” he explained.

On lengthy transportation routes, removing the human factor offers significant advantages. Trucks, according to the firm, react 15 times faster than human drivers and can see farther down the road, even at night.

“In the US every year there are about 5,000 fatalities involving trucks, and most are due to human error,” Lu said. “The truck doesn’t get tired, doesn’t watch a movie or look at a phone. It doesn’t get distracted.”


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