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Autonomous commercialization needs all hands on deck, especially in California

TuSimple executive promises commercialization by 2024, driver shortage resolution by 2030

Photo: TuSimple

As autonomous technology develops, the regulatory environment ⁠— both state and federal ⁠— seems to be slowing the urgency on these efforts. However, during last week’s FreightWaves’ F3 Virtual Experience, Detroit Bureau Chief Alan Adler spoke with Jim Mullen, chief administrative officer at self-driving startup TuSimple, who boldly declared that the commercialization of autonomous trucks will be finalized in 2024. 

For the last year and a half, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has been in the process of rulemaking and determining answers to questions that permeate the transportation industry and drivers at large: If the autonomous truck breaks down, how will it communicate with law enforcement and help to ensure cargo safety? What will be the equivalent of a triangle that provides trucks the same type of warning? What happens when there’s a tire blowout? 

“All the developers in this space will have connectivity to the truck and the ability to monitor the truck remotely,” Mullen said. “When the system no longer feels that it’s going to safely operate the vehicle, depending on the severity of the conditions, it determines whether it needs to hard brake in the lane or take itself to a gradual stop on the shoulder. My suspicion is that over time, the regulators will get into these specifics, but in the near term, that certainly is not an obstacle for the adoption of the L4 trucks.”

The commercialization of autonomous vehicles is an all-hands-on-deck affair, requiring competitors to collaborate with each other, as well as with safety and law enforcement operations. Before joining TuSimple’s team, for instance, Mullen was an acting administrator at the FMCSA. Today, he works closely with executives at Embark, Aurora and Kodiak. 

“Collectively, we put together a coalition ⁠— the California Alliance for Freight Innovation,” he said. “It wasn’t just the developers. We have a plethora of stakeholders that are also members of this coalition like California regulators and lawmakers to try to get to the regulatory environment where you can do L4 testing and deployment in California, because it doesn’t currently allow for that.”

Currently, 26 states’ laws allow for Level 4 deployment. Because of California’s influence on a patchwork of surrounding states and its proximity to major ports, getting California on board is key. California’s recalcitrance, according to Mullen, stems from its seeming prioritization of tying autonomous vehicle deployment with electric vehicle technology. After all, California has committed to becoming diesel-free by 2040.

“All the AV developers are agnostic to the powertrain, whether it’s diesel or electric,” Mullen said. “We believe that AV will arrive at full-scale commercial deployment well before EV, so we’re trying to make sure that the California folks and regulators don’t try to intertwine the two.”

Port congestion, labor shortages, as well as rail and trucking capacity constraints, are having a more immediate impact on California. Mullen is confident that embracing autonomous technologies will ultimately help solve the 80,000-driver shortage by freeing up long-haul drivers, the most difficult position to fill, to pursue work that keeps them closer to home, such as shorter hauls and drayage operations.

“I don’t think California can afford to sit on the sidelines forever and ignore the safety benefits, the productivity benefits. It’s a greener product.”

The adoption and proliferation of autonomous trucks will be gradual. TuSimple has a joint development partnership with Navistar, and by mid-2024, hopes to have its first AV truck off the assembly line. Over time, fleets can remove their manually driven trucks from the network and replace them with AV trucks.

“We think it’s going to take several years before you start to see a meaningful contribution by way of capacity to help alleviate that driver shortage,” said Mullen. “Without a doubt by 2030, AV trucks are going to put out a very nice and healthy dent into the driver shortage problem that our supply chain has today.”

Corrie White

Corrie is fascinated how the supply chain is simultaneously ubiquitous and invisible. She covers freight technology, cross-border freight and the effects of consumer behavior on the freight industry. Alongside writing about transportation, her poetry has been published widely in literary magazines. She holds degrees in English and Creative Writing from UNC Chapel Hill and UNC Greensboro.