TuSimple Announces "Autonomous Freight Network"

A Social Network for Autobots
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· 6 min read

Today, trucking unicorn TuSimple announced it’s forming an autonomous freight network (AFN) with UPS, Penske, U.S. Xpress, and McLane Company.

The network has four components: TuSimple’s automated trucks, digitally pre-mapped routes, “strategically placed” shipping terminals, and TuSimple Connect, a “proprietary autonomous operations monitoring system.”

TuSimple’s AFN will roll in three phases:

  1. 2020-2021: Routes between Phoenix, Tucson, El Paso, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio. TuSimple also aims to remove the safety driver from the truck cab in this window.
  2. 2020-2023: In Phase 2, TuSimple will expand service from L.A. to Jacksonville, connecting the U.S. coasts.
  3. 2023-2024: AFN will expand to cover the contiguous U.S. In Phase 3, TuSimple also plans to begin selling commercial robo-rigs to customers.

The company says it also plans to roll out similar networks in Europe and Asia. U.S. Xpress will provide TuSimple with additional shipping lanes, while Penske will provide it with predictive maintenance and roadside service.

On Friday, TechCrunch reported TuSimple is looking to raise $250 million. The company declined to comment. But Emerging Tech Brew chatted with TuSimple President Cheng Lu about AFN and the company’s current operation.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why was it the right time to make this announcement?

Because of the maturity of our technology. We’re building the most reliable autonomous driving system for heavy-duty trucks, focusing on the virtual driver, and finding hardware partners to build the truck.

The pain points in shipping are driver shortages and increased demand for truck freight. Shippers should be able to access freight capacity when and where they need it. So we’re focused on the ecosystem of bringing autonomy to market.

One of the challenges of Level 4 autonomy is that we operate our trucks and passenger cars on HD-mapped roads. These routes must be mapped and planned ahead of time. It’s not like you can build a self-driving car and go anywhere in the world on Level 4. So the question is: How do we bring our product to the market and give them access when they need it?

The autonomous freight network is the infrastructure that makes the trucks work?

It’s like a 5G iPhone. For the phone to work, you need a 5G network. If you don’t have a network, the user has nowhere to use it.

We’ve come to a point where we’re actively pursuing a roll-out strategy and this is how we’re doing that. We have new strategic partners that will help us scale the network in different capacities, whether it’s servicing, more routes, or terminals. We also have TuSimple Connect, the operation monitoring system.

Tell me more about the terminals.

Terminals are launching pads for operations, meant to give customers coverage and access when they need it. The key is getting them as close as possible to customers. We could have multiple terminals in a city and keep capex [capital expenditure] low so customers have closer access to autonomy.

It sounds great to have highway hubs, but nobody wants to drive 45 minutes outside of a city with a trailer to a launching pad. Our technology is unique because we can drive local streets and highways. For large partners like UPS and McLane, we can map out a lane to their existing terminal so it’s basically right at their front doorstep. That’s a huge plus for them.

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You’re calling TuSimple Connect a proprietary truck monitoring system. What else does the software do?

Think of it as a command center and customer API that lets them plug into the network.

It brings the trucks, terminals, and maps together. TuSimple connect is a central system for safety and monitoring, which lets customers know where their trucks are.

It’s also useful in case of servicing or law enforcement. Imagine if a truck has pulled to the side of the highway and there’s law enforcement to deal with. You need some type of teleoperations in the cab to speak with the law enforcement.

That’s a helpful clarification. Is your decision to launch Phase One in the Southwest U.S. a function of where you’re currently active and where your existing customers are?

That’s right. It’s where we’re active and where our customers want us to go. It’s really along the U.S. major interstates. This is why autonomous trucks will be the first to commercialize. In the U.S., there’s probably five major interstates that cover 80% of all long-haul freight. For the same amount of mapping, you have more freight density and revenue volume.

What else about this region? I’d have to imagine roads, weather, policy, and regulation play a role.

A bit of all that. Regulations are open in these states. The market is big. The Texas Triangle is probably one of the biggest freight markets in the world. And there’s less snow and ice, so it is safer to operate. Plus, our operations are based in Tucson, AZ, so it’s easier to service and maintain our fleet.

How will you scale the network and move beyond Phase 1?

Our vision is tied to how we can best address trucking’s pain points. Our goal is to place terminals and lanes nationwide as close as we can to customers’ front doorsteps. We play a very central part in this value chain and there are ways for us to monetize that.

There’s a network effect. The more trucks you have, the more lanes, coverage, and terminals you have, and you’re providing a better service. The key takeaway is that our technology allows us to scale much faster than competitors.

Everything we’re doing is thinking about how to bring autonomy to market at scale. That includes hardware. We’re working with the world’s largest supplier of Tier 1 vehicles and working on the next generation of steering columns, sensors, and computational parts. These things will go into a truck built by an OEM [original equipment manufacturer].

I wanted to get an update on your timeline to pull the driver out of the cab. Are you still planning to start testing that next year?

That’s right. In 2021, that’s a major goal of ours and we’re still on the timeline.

How has coronavirus affected your operations? I know you continued commercial cargo runs during lockdown.

In the short term, there was a rush for freight capacity.

Long term, I think people recognize the need to have supply chain security. It’s funny, if you look at commercial contracts, there’s always a force majeure clause. Most clauses include pandemics, and as we sign contracts, we realize they apply today. That’s why shippers are building their own private fleets, because they need supply chain security.

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