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Autonomous VehiclesBusinessNewsTrucking

Plus taps AWS as cloud provider as Amazon tightens grip on autonomous vehicles

The autonomous trucking company is moving toward commercialization of Level 3 trucks, with mass production to start next year

  • Plus has selected AWS as cloud provider, as the autonomous trucking company prepares for mass  production of Level 3 truck.
  • The partnership follows Amazon’s investment in self-driving vehicle companies.
  • Expert: Partnership announcements between autonomous startups and established businesses can “warp perception” about which companies are leaders.

Self-driving truck technology company Plus (formerly Plus.ai) has selected Amazon Web Services (AWS) as its cloud provider as the Silicon Valley startup moves closer to commercialization and Amazon tightens its grip on autonomous vehicle technology. 

In addition to the partnership with AWS, announced on Thursday, Plus said it had vetted a group of automotive Tier 1 suppliers that can meet requirements for a commercial self-driving system. The startup did not reveal the names of those suppliers.

Founded in 2016, Plus is one of the few self-driving technology startups to partner with a truck manufacturer. In September of last year, the company announced a joint venture with FAW Jiefang, China’s largest truck maker, to develop self-driving Class 8 trucks.

That partnership is now bearing fruit. In September 2020, FAW rolled out a self-driving heavy-duty truck, the J7. The Level 3 trucks will start mass production in 2021, and thousands of pre-orders have been received so far, the company said.

Level 3 refers to trucks that can make informed decisions for themselves, such as accelerating past a slow-moving vehicle. But they still require human intervention.

The AWS touch

Mass production of autonomous trucks requires “close collaboration with a number of top tier suppliers that offer the best-in-class components and services,” said Shawn Kerrigan, Plus COO and co-founder, in a press release.

Specifically for compute and storage capacity, the AWS team offers a solution that matches the scale Plus needs for a driving system that will power thousands of automated trucks, Kerrigan said.

Richard Bishop, an authority on autonomous trucking, told FreightWaves the AWS-Plus partnership is another example of autonomous vehicle startups collaborating with more established businesses, such as original equipment manufacturers and logistics providers.

“The young guys are starting to work with the old guard,” said Bishop, who is an adviser to Plus. “This is the same idea, just in the world of data. You can’t have a build-it-yourself data approach. You want to have top of the line.”

The partnership also is important for Amazon, as the e-commerce and technology company continues its push into self-driving vehicles.

The tech giant this summer acquired autonomous vehicle company Zoox and has also invested in a funding round for Aurora, the autonomous tech startup helmed by the former head of Google’s self-driving car project. 

“Plus is bringing advanced self-driving technology to the commercial trucking industry that is rapidly innovating,” said Jon Jones, compute services leader at AWS, in the release. AWS is excited to be partnering with Plus on that transformation, especially in the areas of machine learning and compute infrastructure.” 

A string of partnerships, and a cautionary note

The new deal comes amid what appears to be a new spurt of activity among autonomous vehicle companies following a relatively quiet period last spring tied to the coronavirus pandemic and moderate investor enthusiasm for technology investment. 

Some of the developments, however, have come under scrutiny for being more hype than reality. 

Earlier this month, for example, The Information reported that partnerships between TuSimple, one of the leading autonomous trucking startups, and truck manufacturers Navistar (NYSE: NAV) and the Traton Group were not as substantive as initial press coverage might have indicated. 

Additionally, a high-profile partnership with UPS turned out to be less than momentous: The logistics giant handed over just $2.5 million for a 0.2% stake in the startup. 

“It’s really important for any of these [partnership] announcements that they are taken at face value and nothing more,” Bishop cautioned.

As Bishop explained, in the competitive world of autonomous vehicles, startups have far less leverage than the OEMs that are putting millions of dollars into the technology.

Giants like Volvo don’t need to make announcements early in the development and commercialization process, he said, so when startups do make announcements it can “warp perception” about which company is the leader — not mention the significance of any given development.

An incremental approach

What is known about Plus is its material involvement with FAW, the debut of the first truck and the beginnings of mass production.

FAW’s Level 3 model will lay the foundation for a Level 4 truck, Kerrigan said in an emailed statement to FreightWaves. Level 4 refers to trucks that don’t need a human driver under most conditions.

Kerrigan expects fully autonomous trucks in the U.S. will be available around 2024, “which coincides with not just having our Level 4 system ready, but also when the OEMs, Tier 1 suppliers, and regulators will have all the pieces synced up for commercialization.”

Fleets and OEMs are “eager to capture the many benefits and capabilities” of automated driving without waiting for the fully driverless version, he added. 

“Essentially, we are developing a fully functional and safe self-driving system, and then over time, taking out the driver when we have proven it’s safe to do so.”

Plus’ existing investors include Sequoia Capital, GSR Ventures and Softbank-backed Full Truck Alliance, a Chinese digital logistics and freight company. 

Related stories:

Plus.ai partners with Transportation Research Center to test self-driving trucks

Butter in tow, Plus.ai completes cross-country commercial freight run

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Linda Baker, Senior Environment and Technology Reporter

Linda Baker is a FreightWaves senior reporter based in Portland, Oregon. Her beat includes autonomous vehicles, the startup scene, clean trucking, and emissions regulations. Please send tips and story ideas to lbaker@freightwaves.com.
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