LONG BEACH,Calif. — Autonomous trucking startup Plus is going nationwide with a scaled-down version of its software for Class 8 trucks through aftermarket upfits called Plus Build.
The PlusDrive Level 4 autonomous software package that can operate without a human driver remains years away. But many of the functions — advanced driver assistance systems — that make driving safer and more comfortable are available from other manufacturers today.
Plus Build equips trucks with PlusDrive state-of-the-art lidar, radar and camera sensors while constraining the not-ready-for-prime-time autonomous driving software. PlusDrive functions include lane centering, driver-initiated lane changes, traffic jam assists, and adaptive cruise control to zero mph.
A constrained PlusDrive
It allows the Cupertino, California-based company to generate revenue on its technology without waiting for regulations on higher levels of autonomy. The features resemble those included in Wingman Fusion from Bendix Commercial Vehicle Systems and Detroit Assurance 5 technology from Daimler Truck North America.
“Plus Build enables us to basically take existing trucks and turn them into semi-autonomous trucks in less than 12 hours,” Shawn Kerrigan, Plus chief operating officer and co-founder, told FreightWaves.
Deployment and mobile maintenance of PlusDrive is the responsibility of vehicle upfitter Velociti Inc., which handles numerous technology installations across the trucking industry.
“We’ve worked extensively with Velociti for a while now. That’s how we’ve come to really appreciate their ability to help us scale and deploy in all these locations,” Kerrigan said. “They’ve been helping companies do this type of stuff for over 20 years.”
One of PlusDrive’s biggest selling points is fuel savings, which Plus estimates at 10% or more compared with an nonequipped truck. Some of the world’s largest fleets and truck manufacturers participate are running Plus Build-equipped trucks. Kerrigan declined to identify them.
Amazon taking PlusDrive deliveries
Amazon is one known Plus customer. Hundreds of PlusDrive systems are being deployed to the online retailer. Amazon was in queue to acquire 20% of Plus as part of Plus’ planned $3.3 billion merger with special purpose acquisition company Hennessy Capital.
The SPAC fell apart in November. Plus initiated the breakup, CEO David Liu said on the sidelines of the Advanced Clean Transportation Expo.
Plus raised $800 million in two funding rounds in 2021. It is well funded and is growing its headcount, currently at 350, Kerrigan said.
“What’s really important for any company at the end of the day is to have a clear, compelling vision for the future and successfully execute on that,” he said. “I think we’ve remained true to that.”
Keeping drivers behind the wheel
Unlike rival Aurora Innovation, which relies on driving simulations to advance its software, Plus favors a balance of simulation and accumulating real-world driving miles with safety drivers at the wheel. The original goal was 8 billion miles.
Rival TuSimple has conducted 10 driverless pilots.
“To get to a full Level 4 product release with nobody in it, you’re going to need to have really extensive experience in validation so you can prove to yourself, to the public and to regulators that the system is really, truly safer than human drivers,” Kerrigan said.
“We think developing this really broad experience base with billions of miles of experience is the critical gaming factor to solve for both the readiness of the software and being able to make a compelling case on the regulatory front.”
Plus conducted a 20-mile closed-highway test without a driver in China about a year ago. It runs autonomous trucks in China with safety drivers as it does in Europe and North America.
TuSimple recently delayed its purpose-built autonomous truck with Navistar by a year until 2025. Plus offers no specific date when it will remove the driver.
“Our view is that all those pieces are coming together in the next few years,” Kerrigan said. “But it’s hard for us to put our finger on exactly what date that is going to be.”