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UPS Expands Autonomous Truck Trials With TuSimple

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The freight hauling pilot program between UPS and autonomous driving company TuSimple is set to switch up a gear, with a doubling of deliveries and a new route. 

The unicorn startup TuSimple (valued at $1.1 billion as of September 2019) currently uses retrofitted trucks and safety drivers to develop its self-driving technology, with the aim of getting to fully driverless operations sometime in 2021. To enable real-world testing of its system, the startup has 18 contracted partners including (UPS and Amazon) between whom it makes approximately 20 deliveries a day. These are real deliveries of goods that are needed by those companies.

The pilot program has just stepped up a gear with the announcement that UPS is adding an extra 10 deliveries per week along a new route for the trial. TuSimple is already transporting parcels for UPS between Phoenix and Tucson in Arizona. The expansion will see the additional 10 deliveries running between Phoenix and El Paso in Texas.

While TuSimple’s research facility is in San Diego, most of its pilot operations take place from Tucson in Arizona. The startup itself is actually based in China, with headquarters in Beijing and a testing fleet planned for Shanghai – in fact, TuSimple was one of the first two companies, along with Momenta, that were issued with China’s first test plates for autonomous trucks back in 2018. The startup has raised a total of about US$298 million since launching in 2015 and is backed by major investors such as Nvidia and Sina Weibo.  

This story was also featured on the popular U.S. TV news show 60 Minutes, as part of an in-depth look at autonomous trucks and the potential impacts on trucking jobs. The TV program focused on some of the anxiety amongst current truck drivers, many of whom were surprised by the capabilities of the technology today and how far it has come in such a short timeframe. The program also reflected on the fact that trucking is one of the most common jobs in the U.S. for people without a college degree and that the sector employs 2 million drivers.

Personal comments

TuSimple seems to be in a prime position, with the weight of UPS and Amazon behind them as partners in their pilot program; as well as having investors with deep pockets and longer-term perspectives. Waymo has also aggressively positioned itself in this space – as we reported in a previous newsletter [3] – while the exit of Starsky Robotics earlier this year, despite previously being hailed as a leader for completing the first test on a public highway without a human on board, shows that the path to autonomy is still far from a done deal.

From a sustainable transport point of view, it is unclear what the net effects of autonomous trucking might be. Whilst, on the one hand, such pilot programs have demonstrated an approximate fuel saving of 10% due mostly to keeping under the speed limit [1] (not taking into account potential further savings from platooning); on the other hand, a key advantage of autonomous trucks that transport companies will certainly look to exploit is that they can drive continuously without needing toilet- or rest breaks, only short stops for refuelling. This could result in a much stronger commercial incentive to continue using diesel trucks instead of transitioning to electric drivetrains in order to avoid greater downtime from charging.

Furthermore, we have seen the so-called ‘rebound effect’ in many other areas of industry, where incremental technical improvements to efficiency are often negated by the new demand that such efficiencies induce [4]. While autonomy offers climate benefits and fuel savings from better speed management, as well as aerodynamic improvements through platooning, the trucking industry will still likely need to make massive strides in electrification (or otherwise fuel-switching) in order to significantly progress towards becoming sustainable.  

Source: Drive Sweden

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