Self-driving truck startup TuSimple raises $95 million, breaks “unicorn” barrier

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TuSimple, a San Diego- and China-based autonomous truck company, announced today it has raised $95 million in Series D funding based on a valuation of $1 billion.

The investment brings TuSimple’s total funding to date to $178 million. The latest round was led by Sina Corporation (NASDAQ: SINA), a technology company widely recognized for developing Weibo, the popular social media platform. Composite Capital, a Hong Kong-based investment firm focused on consumer, technology and transportation companies globally, also  participated.

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TuSimple will use the investment  to grow its commercial autonomous fleet, chief product officer Chuck Price told FreightWaves. The company, which claims to run the only fully autonomous semi-trucks capable of driving from depot-to-depot without human intervention, makes daily deliveries in Arizona, and soon in Texas, for large shippers and fleets.   

“Investors spoke with their pocketbooks,” Price said. “We are one of the only truck autonomation companies that is willing to give rides in our vehicles. We’re throwing trucks into crazy traffic, and investors see that. They come away believing that what we say is true – this thing is behaving properly in some crazy, real-world situations.”

TuSimple consistently reaches its milestones on or ahead of schedule, “and we are confident that they are poised to bring the first commercial self-driving trucks to market,” Colin Xie, Vice General Manager of the Investment Department at Sina Corporation, said in a statement. “We are focused on finding the global leaders in artificial intelligence and TuSimple is ahead of the pack. The combination of technical excellence and an impressive leadership team has propelled the company into unicorn status.”

Co-founded by Cal Tech-trained cognitive scientist Xiaodi Hou (who’s also the chief technology officer and U.S. unit president),TuSimple has been growing at a rapid pace. Employee headcount doubled to 500 this year. The company has 12 contracted customers, and the recent investment will  grow the fleet to over 50 trucks by June, Price said.

TuSimple uses its own fleet of Peterbilt trucks to test the technology, and in January partnered with Cummins to integrate its autonomous-driving software with truck powertrains.

Price said TuSimple will issue a press release soon identifying one of its customers. The others want to remain anonymous.

Investor confidence notwithstanding, TuSimple has plenty of competition.  Ike, a self-driving truck startup founded by former Apple, Google and Uber Advanced Technologies Group engineers, announced last week $52 million in a series A financing round led by Bain Capital Ventures.

Paz Eshel and former Uber and Otto engineer Don Burnette secured $40 million last summer for startup Kodiak Robotics. Then there’s Embark, which also integrates its self-driving systems into Peterbilt semis  – and which recently launched a pilot with Amazon.

Price is undeterred. “We  have the world’s most sophisticated simulation system for level-four autonomy,” he said. TuSimple’s “secret sauce,” government affairs director Robert Brown told FreightWaves in an earlier interview, is a perception system that can detect vehicles and objects up to 1,000 meters (about six-tenths of a mile) ahead, an accomplishment he said competitors had yet to duplicate.

TuSimple plans another fund raise this year, Price said.