It seems every autonomous trucking software developer has different commercialization approaches and unique go-to-market timetables.
Take Plus, the Cupertino, California, startup that splits self-driving truck efforts between the U.S. and China. Plus is aggressively moving to install its Level 4 software stack in First Auto Works (FAW) trucks in China. It is selling $10,000-$20,000 retrofits for various makers’ Class 8 semis in the U.S.
“Rather than dozens of trucks, we will have hundreds and thousands, tens of thousands of these trucks with Level 4 technology with drivers to monitor, test and validate,” David Liu, founder and CEO of Plus, told FreightWaves.
“We believe you can apply the Level 4 technology today. It takes a long period of time and lots of miles to test your technology before you can pull the driver out.”
Like 10 billion miles. Or maybe more.
“Technology advancement is an evolution,” Liu said. “You’ve got to be able to test and validate your technology at scale with billions of miles of data and testing. That’s the only way to prove your system is safer than an average human driver.”
Level 4 means the truck can perform most functions without human interaction. Plus will keep a driver ready to take over PlusDrive functions for several years.
Focusing on biggest trucking markets
Plus focuses on long-haul commercial trucking. Its first driverless autonomous software system operated in the Qingdao Port in China In 2018. A year later, Plus became a minority partner in a joint venture with state-owned FAW, China’s largest truck maker. And it has pilot programs with four of the globe’s Top 10 truck manufacturers.
Liu would not name the other manufacturers because of nondisclosure agreements. But he indicated most have multiple autonomy partners. One example is Daimler Trucks. It is developing its own Level 4 system with Torc Robotics, a software company it purchased in 2019. And it works with Waymo Via, which is developing a fifth-generation autonomous system.
Half of Plus’ 200 employees work in China and half in the U.S. But all the effort is focused on software, compared to others that are taking a more deliberate approach to commercializing what they are developing.
TuSimple, another startup with Chinese roots, is booking revenue from hauling revenue loads in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas to demonstrate its autonomous prowess. TuSimple has multiple fleet, supplier, technology and manufacturing partners. It has hundreds of reservations. But it won’t lease or sell trucks to customers until 2024.
“We will be in mass production starting next quarter,” Liu said. “We anticipate we’ll have a fleet of a few tens of thousands in a couple of years.”
Those trucks can operate at Level 4 on highways. But drivers will be on board to take over control if needed. Operationally, it is more like a partially automated Level 2 approach.
Plus claims 10,000 no-deposit contracts for its software, half from U.S. customers and half in China.
“We’re not interested in being a truck maker,” Liu said. “We’re also not interested in being a carrier ourselves.” Our business model is not hauling freight. We don’t believe that is highly scalable. In fact, we’re competing with our customers if we haul freight.”
To illustrate that point, Plus said Thursday it is expanding a pilot with logistics and fleet provider SF Express. Since December, Plus has been recording about 1,000 miles on routes between Wuhan and Wuxi in the Yangtze River Delta.
It reports no driver takeovers in more than 62,000 miles of autonomous driving. The supervised automation saved 20% in fuel costs.
“We enable the carriers to make their product better, to make their operations more efficient,” Liu said.
No China concerns
Liu is aware but unconcerned about lingering trade tensions between China and the U.S.
“We don’t see any major impact of the political situation on our business,” he said. “If you look at us, we’re no different than any of these global companies, GM or Ford or Tesla. China is an important market for us, being one of the top two markets in the world. So, it is important for us to develop our business in China. And we have some tremendous partners there.”
The ventures arm of Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp. (SAIC), the putative head of the Shanghai municipal government, is a Plus investor. A $200 million Series B fundraising round in February included Hong Kong-listed Guotai Junan International, China’s leading securities firm, and Wanxiang, a top Chinese automotive components supplier.
Weeks before TuSimple filed preliminary paperwork Tuesday to go public via an IPO, Bloomberg reported Plus was drawing attention from special purpose acquisition companies. Liu declined to specifically discuss a reverse merger with a blank check company, saying the company does not comment on rumors.
“We’re certainly looking at what competitors in our space are doing,” he said. “Positioning ourselves as a leader is important. So, we’re keeping a close eye on that. We’re exploring all our options.”