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Autonomous startup takes the long road in logistics transportation

Friday, November 1, 2019 - 06:00
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First came investor funding. Next rolled in the big rigs. For TuSimple, a self-driving company, 2019 has been a busy year. They have captured the attention of two shipping partners and the press. Now advanced driver assist technology is testing this startup in other ways.

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In August, Forbes magazine reported that United Parcel Service (UPS) invested an undisclosed amount of capital into TuSimple with the goal to determine how their fleet of trucks embedded with digital cameras, lidar sensors and other proprietary technologies can optimize a faster delivery network. This minority stake by UPS in this San Diego business whose roots formed in China is the first of its kind to monetize artificial intelligence on wheels at this scale. Helping UPS to reach their customers with a commercial level-4 truck solution is how TuSimple wants to win at long-haul transport.

According to a May UPS news release, TuSimple has been regularly hauling their cargo between Tucson and Phoenix, Ariz. Together, both teams monitor improvements in service and efficiencies while the onboard computer steers the semi. An engineer and driver seated in the cab are ready to intervene, but they are mostly focused on analyzing safety data relative to autonomous miles logged.

In an interview with Aftermarket Business World, Vivian Sun, TuSimple’s head of business development, said that their close relationship with UPS will grow deeper as more complex testing on the public road stretches beyond metro Phoenix. When UPS is ready to go driver free, they will apply for state approval to initiate commercial delivery.

Citing Arizona’s executive order, Sun echoed a management declaration made to the Wall Street Journal in February that their 45 driverless vehicles will be operational by 2020 or 2021. As for qualifying nationwide, TuSimple is actively pursuing state approval rights within the legal boundaries of what each department of transportation allows.

Safety progress continues to propel TuSimple. This four-year old company wants to be the leading shipping solution for commercial transport. Their press release called out highway I-10 that snakes into Phoenix. It is of strategic interest to them because the order shipments total more than half of the economic activity for the United States.

On August 30, the Wall Street Journal stated that FedEX, Amazon and UPS need more options to carry their goods, in what the paper calls the “warehouse to doorstep” race. In order to grab more share of packages delivered, Amazon plans to boost their fleet of jets to 60 from 45.

Around the same period that UPS contracted TuSimple, Sun spoke about five round trips made between Dallas, Texas and Phoenix on behalf of the United States Postal Service (USPS). She rattled off a few points why the first phase with USPS has been working. Apart from on-time mail, each trial passed the safety standards over a 1,000 mile stretch across three state lines to reach the two sorting facilities in each city.

In one instance, severe weather, including a tornado had touched down nearby the driving route, but did little to compromise safety. Every rig uses an advance crash avoidance vision system that detects objects up to 1,000 meters with the ability to make the appropriate maneuver with 35 seconds spare. Under stormy weather conditions, she added, these trucks will able to handle the harsher climates in Michigan and New England.

USPS spokeswoman Kimberly Frum confirmed to AMBW that TuSimple had been carrying their letters and packages. Other than that USPS “is innovating and investing in their future,” Frum’s email stated, “We are conducting research and testing…” Frum declined to specify which next steps will follow with TuSimple for the rest of 2019.  

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