UPS has been discreetly using self-driving trucks to deliver cargo
- This week, UPS announced that it's working with autonomous trucking startup TuSimple on a pilot project to deliver cargo in Arizona using self-driving trucks.
- UPS has also acquired a minority stake in TuSimple.
- TuSimple hopes its trucks will be fully autonomous — without a human driver — by late 2020, though regulatory questions remain.
A startup named TuSimple has been using autonomous trucks to deliver cargo for UPS as part of a pilot program, UPS announced this week. The program involved delivering supply-chain cargo along a 115-mile stretch between Tucscon and Phoenix, Arizona. UPS also said its venture capital arm had acquired a minority stake in TuSimple.
In May, TuSimple wrapped up a similar pilot program in which it used autonomous trucks to deliver cargo along a 1,000-mile route between Phoenix, Arizona, and Dallas, Texas. The two organizations are currently discussing “next steps,” a TuSimple spokesperson told The Verge.
TuSimple, a San Francisco-based startup currently valued at more than $1 billion, is a top player among companies seeking to automate long-haul trucking. The company’s system works by installing nine cameras and two LIDAR sensors in Navistar trucks. TuSimple says it could help cut the average costs of trucking by 30 percent, though “there is a long way to go” from the regulatory perspective, Todd Lewis, managing partner at UPS Ventures, told Reuters. “But the technology has a ton of implications today,” he added.
So far, there are no reports of any complications or accidents involving TuSimple trucks. It’s a different story for the traditional trucking industry, however. In 2017, 987 truckers died on the job in the U.S., while thousands more were injured by traffic accidents, moving heavy cargo or other job-related duties. And that’s not counting non-trucker drivers who were killed or injured in accidents involving large trucks.
TuSimple and similar companies hope to be the leader in making the industry safer and more profitable.
TuSimple’s trucks currently operate at “Level 4” autonomy, as measured by the Society of Automotive Engineers’ “Levels of Driving Automation” standard. This means that the trucks drive themselves, but a driver and an engineer are stationed inside the vehicle at all times, ready to take manual control if anything goes wrong. By the end of 2020, TuSimple hopes to go fully autonomous and take humans out of the cabin altogether, and the company is on track to do so, according to TuSimple President Xiaodi Hou.
Separately, companies such as Tesla also hope to soon put fully autonomous vehicles on U.S. roads in the form of robotaxis, which could function essentially like driverless Ubers. But the consensus seems to be that autonomous trucks will hit the streets first, mainly because long-haul trucks run predictable routes and can make money 24–7. Transporting people is a more unpredictable business model.
“The economics for a robotaxi are just not as strong as for a truck,” TuSimple Chief Financial Officer Cheng Lu told Reuters. “And a lot of investors see it that way as well.”