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Autonomous trucking execs talk hardware, regulation and who will be the first to market

This past week has seen a couple of major deals in the autonomous trucking space. TuSimple landed $95 million in Series D funding, while Ike Robotics took home $52 million in series A.

The two companies are at different stages and take different approaches to self-driving truck development. TuSimple, a San Diego-based startup, employs 500 in the U.S. and China and  has carved out a space as an artificial intelligence powerhouse running real trucks on real roads with real deliveries. Ike Robotics is a smaller enterprise with plenty of autonomous vehicle brainpower focused on running trucks exclusively on highways and staying alert to driver displacement concerns. Ike is licensing its software from Nuro, a two-year old self-driving startup.

We checked in, post-raise, with Ike CEO Alden Woodrow and TuSimple chief product officer Chuck Price. They talked about  the value of being the first company to bring a fully autonomous truck to market, the trucking hardware challenge and how to get buy-in from the public and regulators.

Here are a few excerpts from the interviews, which were conducted separately.

On the importance of being first

Price (TuSimple): “We think it is critical to be first. The original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) have to make a multi-hundred million dollar investment for a new truck line. So the first in the door with the OEMs is the one that has the greatest chance of having a commercial path to deployment. We think it’s very important to get this thing completed, validated and proven to be ready so that we can achieve that commercial presence.”

Woodrow (Ike Robotics): “We do want to be first, but our goal is to build a commercial product at scale – to build something that drives just on the highway, is valuable for the industry, is valuable for truck drivers and technically is the simplest thing to do. We want to build a system in which  truck drivers still use skills navigating city streets. To us it’s not that important to be the first ones driving trucks around today for testing purposes. We think there are more effective and lower-risk ways of testing the product. And we don’t care that much about being the first to get the driver out of the truck.”

On the hardware challenge

Woodrow: “A lot of attention is paid to software and truck companies like ours working out of Silicon Valley. But what’s interesting is there is a lot of work to be done on Tier One and OEMs to develop underlying platforms that allow the truck to drive itself. If you buy a Toyota Prius, you can control the engine – the capability for electronic activation exists. That  is not the case with tractor-trailers. You can retrofit stuff, but an engineering exercise that allows a computer to control a truck today is not a commercial product. You can’t buy a steering column that is necessary to take the driver out of the truck.

“So another big challenge is: are there going to be vehicle platforms? Imagine a world where you 100 percent had the software system but still couldn’t put self-driving trucks in the world.  We need to ally our roadmap with partners.”

Price: “We are not doing everything by ourselves – we have to partner with others. It becomes an engineering problem with multiple partners, multiple organizations and aligning with them on shared responsibility, shared schedules, a safety program [and] agreeing on formal interfaces between the elements of the system. The processes are pretty well understood, but this may be one of the most complex integrations because it’s brand new territory.  

“That’s the  fundamental reason we’re building this fleet is because those miles validate the system and give us confidence these are ready in the real world.”

[TuSimple runs its own fleet of Peterbilt trucks outfitted with the startup’s autonomous software. The company has also partnered with Cummins on powertrain integration.]

On getting the public and regulators onboard

Woodrow: “We are taking a proactive engagement approach. In addition to having people who worked at all the top self-driving programs, we also have people who worked on medical devices, who have a great appreciation for the need to build a technology that is safe and reliable and makes people feel comfortable. We hired [in January] a head of policy government affairs, Holly Gordon, and she’s getting up to speed with regulators so that when the technology is ready, we make sure the world is ready as well.

“We are building a product, not a technology. It’s about having the right partnerships, the right engagement, telling the story to people and explaining why we are going to be a responsible actor. And we’re trying to think about what this means for truck drivers. We want to be super proactive about that.”

Price: “We address this through building active working relationships with all relevant state and federal agencies; working with industry groups to develop normative processes to integrate this technology into the commercial fabric; working with academic institutions to conduct independent research; working with community organizations where we operate to educate and inform; and most importantly, publish independently audited results of our system validation, to demonstrate that we have followed the best known practices in producing a reliable solution that can be integrated into the public transportation system.”

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 [email protected]