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Autonomous VehiclesNewsNewslettersTechnologyTop StoriesTruck Talk

Truck Talk: Throwing shade edition

China's autonomous market; rolling up driverless miles and pedigreed directors

This week, Plus CEO David Liu talks about autonomous trucking in China; debating the limitations of real-world autonomous miles versus simulations; and hybrid powertrain maker Hyliion’s addition of a second secretary of transportation to its board.

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Middle Kingdom mastery

Two of the leading autonomous truck software developers compete in China — TuSimple and Plus. Only Plus generates press releases, such as its 4,000-mile round trip on the Silk Road between Suzhou and Dunhuang. Or completing a 20-mile controlled highway run with no driver in the cab. 

TuSimple (NASDAQ: TSP) keeps it, well, simpler, reiterating that it has 20 autonomous trucks in testing near Shanghai. But it cannot crank out news fast enough about its growth, partners and progress as the first publicly traded autonomous truck developer in the U.S.   

So, does it matter who dominates the China market?

“It’s only natural for us to look at China because that is the No. 1 market in terms of number of trucks and the size of the long-haul trucking market,”  Plus co-founder and CEO David Liu told me last month at the company’s Cupertino, California, headquarters. 

Plus was founded in 2016 by Liu, fellow Stanford grad student Shawn Kerrigan and some of their classmates. They set up shop originally in Los Altos, California, because Liu lived there. Plus started looking at the $600 billion China freight market in 2018.

The Plus journey on China’s Silk Road (Photo: Plus)

Impressing FAW

As Liu tells the story, China’s top truck manufacturer, First Auto Works, was looking for a partner to conduct an autonomous trucking demonstration with no driver in the Port of Qingdao, the world’s eighth largest.

TuSimple, founded a year earlier than Plus with dual headquarters at the time in Shanghai and San Diego, had been working with FAW for about a year, “but they were more impressed with our technology.”

The collaboration between Plus and FAW led to a manufacturing joint venture in 2019. Production of PlusDrive-equipped trucks with supervised automation in China begins this quarter. FAW’s ties to the central government helped Plus get some of the plum demonstrations it has touted. The Qingdao demo aired live on the state-run CCTV.

“We went into China as a newcomer. We essentially upended that market. No one could even come out and claim they’re on the same level as us in China.”

  Plus co-founder and CEO David Liu

“We went into China as a newcomer,” Liu said. “We essentially upended that market. No one could even come out and claim they’re on the same level as us in China.  Let’s just be very open. In a way, [TuSimple is] focused on the U.S. They have to thank us. I mean, they have to focus on the U.S.”

Those are probably fighting words at TuSimple, whose executives throw shade on Plus more than they do on other high-autonomy competitors. Its common refrain is that Plus is pursuing Level 2 automated driving technology and calling it Level 4 high autonomy.

“Here, if there’s a driver in it, they call it the L2. If there is no driver in it, they call it L4,” Liu said. “But it’s somewhat confusing because all of the L4 trucks we have still have a safety driver. So by definition, it’s still L2, I guess. You’ve got a human driver there, [a] safety driver.”

Throwing shade

The most recent example of animus came earlier this month when Plus coincidentally — maybe intentionally — released a video of its late June driverless highway demo on the same day TuSimple reported Q2 earnings. Plus expects to complete a business combination with special purpose acquisition company Hennessy Capital Acquisition Corp. soon.

TuSimple CEO Cheng Lu sounded a bit defensive when asked about the demo during the company’s Q2 earnings call on Aug. 5. China or not, the Plus video cut ahead of TuSimple’s planned driverless pilot in Arizona before the end of the year.

“It was on a closed highway that hasn’t opened to the public yet,” Lu said.. “So, it’s clear this is a very different type of test from our driver-out program, which is on an open highway [with] commercial operations on long stretches of road, on surface streets and highways in the U.S.”

Asked why he thinks TuSimple and some other competitors are dismissive, Liu said, “If they don’t care about us, they wouldn’t throw shade on us.”

Plus driverless demo in China (Photo: Plus)

Shut up and drive

While we’re at it, there’s some disagreement in the autonomous community over the relative importance of real-world driver-monitored miles versus computer simulations.

First, there’s Liu, who believes trucks with safety drivers  are just as important as virtual miles — if not more so — even though Plus spins up 10 computer-generated miles for every physical mile driven in its supervised Level 4 trucks.

“Simulation is not going to replace real-world testing,” he said. “And what we’re saying is you need billions of miles of real-world testing. That’s not replaceable by simulation.”

Sandor Barna, senior vice president of hardware development at self-driving vehicle technology company Aurora Innovation, sees it differently.

“The reality is if you’re continuously developing your software, you have a real problem if you’re only testing real-world models,” Barna told me this week. “Real-world models are more about discovering new things and less about testing because testing has to be done much more thoroughly than you can do with real-world models.”

He gave the example of a child running out from behind a parked car. Without computer simulations, testing how to react to that in the future would require driving around hoping for a repeat occurrence.

“You definitely need real-world models to validate your system,” Barna said. “But what you’ll find is you rapidly reach a point of diminishing returns. It’s great for finding things that happen once every hundred miles of driving. But if it gets to where it’s happening once every hundred thousand miles, well, that’s a lot of driving to find one incident.”

“You definitely need real-world models to validate your system. But what you’ll find is you rapidly reach a point of diminishing returns. It’s great for finding things that happen once every hundred miles of driving. But if it gets to where it’s happening once every hundred thousand miles, well, that’s a lot of driving to find one incident.”

Sandor Barna,, senior vice president of hardware development, aurora innovation

Steering into autonomy

One more autonomous trucking note … . Locomation, which is working on a Level 4 two-truck convoy system — it doesn’t like the word platooning — cut a deal with German supplier ZF Friedrichstrafen to jointly develop and test ZF’s Level 4-capable ReAX steering systems in real-world conditions.

An electronic, or drive-by-wire, steering system is one of the components that need a redundant backup in an autonomous truck. In case of steering failure, a backup must seamlessly take over the steering function.

Pittsburgh-based Locomation plans to deploy its Autonomous Relay Convoy in late 2022.

Double prizes

Hyliion Holdings now has two former Department of Transportation secretaries on its board of directors. Former DOT boss Elaine Chao  joined predecessor Andrew Card as a director at Hyliion (NYSE:HYLN) , the Class 8 natural gas-electric powertrain developer. Chao recently became a director at autonomous trucking software developer Embark Trucks, which is developing a plug-and-play Level 4 driverless system for all four major truck manufacturers, though Embark does not have an announced partnership with any of them.

That’s it for this week. Thanks for reading. Click here to get Truck Talk delivered by email on Fridays.

Alan

Alan Adler

Alan Adler is a Detroit-based award-winning journalist who worked for The Associated Press, the Detroit Free Press and most recently as Detroit Bureau Chief for Trucks.com. He also spent two decades in domestic and international media relations and executive communications with General Motors.

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