US truck maker Navistar is joining forces with TuSimple, a leading autonomous vehicle startup, to build a self-driving semi truck that can operate without a human driver on highways and local roads. As part of the deal, Navistar is taking a minority stake in TuSimple — though neither company would disclose the size of Navistar’s investment.
TuSimple recently unveiled its plans to build out a coast-to-coast freight-hauling business using a fleet of camera-and-LIDAR equipped autonomous class 8 tractor trailers. Now the company has a manufacturing partner to help it realize its dream of robot semi trucks criss-crossing across the nation.
“This is a major key component, of course, of being able to bring autonomy to the market,” TuSimple president Cheng Lu told The Verge.
Founded in 2015, TuSimple currently uses Navistar trucks outfitted with the startup’s own self-driving tech, which sees the world largely through 20 cameras and two LIDAR laser sensors. But rather than continue to retrofit existing Navistar trucks, Lu said TuSimple wants to build a driverless truck from the ground up so it can ensure its sensors and self-driving software can withstand the heavy conditions associated with long-haul trucking.
“It’s going through a lot of wear and tear,” Lu said. “The roads are bumpy. It’s working 24 hours a day. And that means every component on the truck needs to last as long as you can.”
TuSimple is already backed by UPS, Nvidia, and Chinese technology company Sina, and it has a headquarters in San Diego and Beijing. But expansions and vehicle manufacturing take money — lots of money. Last month, TechCrunch reported that TuSimple hired investment bank Morgan Stanley to help it raise an additional $250 million from investors. Since its inception, the company has raised $298 million with a valuation of more than $1 billion.
TuSimple is aiming for a fully driverless system, but currently its trucks include two human operators to monitor the driving and take over when needed. Lu said the company is aiming to begin production in 2024, at which point he anticipates being able to remove those backup drivers. The trucks will be able to driver autonomously on highways and local roads, in most weather conditions, but only along “predefined routes,” Lu added.
“So you can imagine that limits where these trucks can go,” he said. “It’s not suitable for distribution center-to-storefront, or storefront-to-home.”
Lu feels this fact should blunt criticism that autonomous trucks will take jobs away from truck drivers. “The on-demand economy is actually going to increase the need for these last-mile, first-mile regional delivery jobs,” he said. (Previously, TuSimple’s CTO and co-founder Xiaodi Hou described long-haul trucking jobs as ones that “tarnish on the glory of humanity.”)
Autonomous vehicle startups these days tend to focus on two commercial prospects: ride-hailing and delivery. Indeed, most major autonomous vehicle outfits, including Waymo, Cruise, Argo, Nuro, Zoox, and others, see ride-hailing and delivery as the tip of the spear for self-driving technology, and the best way to recoup expenses.
Lu said the “road to commercialization” for autonomous trucking will be much faster than it will be for those startups working on robotaxis, even though its much more expensive to equip a self-driving truck than a self-driving minivan. That said, TuSimple’s sensor equipment leans more heavily on cameras, which are cheap to make, as opposed to LIDAR, which is incredibly expensive. And Lu says trucks will have a higher utilization than taxis, meaning they can haul freight at all hours earning revenue for the company.
For its part, Navistar gets a toehold in the autonomous vehicle space, which can help as the company looks to possibly build out its own fleet of autonomous vehicles. The company hasn’t always been on stable financial footing. Navistar was on the brink of bankruptcy in 2016, having squandered billions of dollars on a diesel engine that failed to win the approval of the Environmental Protections Agency. After US regulators announced new rules to reduce carbon emissions from big trucks, putting pressure on Navistar to find a technology partner, Volkswagen swooped in to buy a minority stake in the company.
Navistar doesn’t only make trucks — the Lisle, Illinois-based company also owns International Trucks, which encompasses a variety of medium-duty trucks, and IC Bus, which makes buses and commercial vehicles. Navistar and TuSimple have been working under a “technical partnership” for the last two years.
“Autonomous technology is entering our industry,” said Persio Lisboa, president and CEO of Navistar, in a statement, “and will have a profound impact on our customers’ businesses.”
Autonomous trucking is starting to emerge from the shadow of the much larger robotaxi industry, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to cast doubt on the efficacy of shared ride-hailing. Alphabet’s Waymo has been testing its self-driving tractor trailers in Arizona and California, and it soon will be testing in New Mexico and Texas. The company is also working with UPS. Other companies — from established players like Daimler to newcomers like Ike, Embark, and Plus.ai — are also working toward a fully driverless truck.
But it hasn’t been smooth hauling for everyone. Uber abandoned its self-driving truck plans after one of its self-driving cars killed a pedestrian in Arizona, and Starsky Robotics recently went out of business after a failed round of funding.