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Truck Tech: ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ edition

TuSimple muffed communications of April crash, neglecting partner Navistar

TuSimple told federal officials about the crash of one of its supervised autonomous trucks and temporarily grounded its fleet. But it neglected to inform its partner, Navistar. Meanwhile, the incident led rival Torc Robotics to make some changes to its own self-driving truck processes.

Was meaning to say something …

Much ado about something has been made of the TuSimple supervised autonomous truck crash in April in Arizona. No one was hurt, but the unintended sharp left turn across a lane of Interstate 10 traffic and into a concrete barrier created a pretty big stink about the prime-time readiness of autonomous trucks.  

What started as a short but startling video clip on the Asian Mai Show on YouTube spread to analyst questions and a full treatment in The Wall Street Journal and one of its podcasts.

Screen grab of TuSimple truck crash
A screenshot of the video leaked to the Asian Mai Show on YouTube. 

Peppered with questions from analysts on the company’s second-quarter earnings call, TuSimple CEO Xiaodi Hou took responsibility for the incident. He promised changes had been made that would prevent a repeat of such an occurrence.

But Hou apparently neglected to tell manufacturing partner Navistar Inc. about the incident — at least not right away. The Traton Group subsidiary, which will make the purpose-built truck embedded with TuSimple software in 2025, appears to have learned about the crash when the public did.

“We were not fully happy with the transparency of this situation,” Michael Grahe, Navistar vice president of operations, told me this week. “Part of a development of a technology like this means that sometimes things go wrong. Next time we will be informed earlier. We have processes in place to make sure [a communication gap] doesn’t happen again.”

Navistar vice president Michael Grahe in front of company truck.
Michael Grahe is Navistar’s vice president of operations. (Photo: Alan Adler/FreightWaves

Learning from others’ autonomous mistakes

TuSimple rival Torc Robotics had its own take on the April mishap: What can we learn from this?

“When we become aware of an incident from another organization, we try to learn as much as we possibly can,” Torc CEO Michael Fleming told me. “In some situations, we shut down our fleet operation in the event that nother organization had an accident or an incident. We pause and we reflect. We try to understand root cause analysis. Why did this happen?”

Policies, procedures, validation criteria all get scrutiny.

“We spent a lot of time on the Uber incident and fatality” in March 2018, Fleming said. “We went through that NTSB [National Transportation Safety Board] report and we asked ourselves some really tough questions. What are we missing?” 

Torc Robotics-equipped Freightliner Cascadias and trailers
Torc Robotics Level 4 autonomous software in Freightliner Cascadias in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in November 2021. (Photo: Alan Adler/FreightWaves)

What happened at TuSimple “is a learning opportunity for the entire [Torc] organization,” Fleming said. “We need to pause, reflect, understand root-cause analysis and ensure that we all raise that bar in the way that we test to ensure that the industry moves forward.”

Torc took actions from the TuSimple case, but Fleming said they did not include grounding Torc’s Level 4 autonomy-equipped trucks. What Torc did was “so far in the weeds” as to defy layman explanations.

“We made changes based on that incident and we’ll probably make changes based on future incidents that we see,” Fleming said. “We must learn from our mistakes and others’ mistakes to move the ball forward.”


On his own terms

Fleming was the face of Torc long before Daimler Truck acquired most of the company in March 2019. At the ripe old age of 43, Fleming will step down as CEO after 17 years effective Oct. 1. Peter Vaughan Schmidt, Daimler’s head of autonomy, succeeds him.

Torc Robotics CEO Michael Fleming  

The question had to be asked: Did he jump or was he pushed?

“It was my idea,” Fleming told me Thursday shortly after an all-people meeting where he shared his plans with employees. “When we joined the Daimler Truck family, we outlined a three-year plan, and it had a series of goals. I also outlined a series of Michael Fleming goals at the same time.

“There’s never really that perfect time for a CEO transition. But I did a lot of reflection and came to the conclusion that Torc is in incredible shape right now.”

Giving up the CEO position doesn’t mean Fleming is out the door. More like the opposite.

“I wear a lot of different hats at Torc: CEO, shareholder, board member and founder. I’ll always wear the founder hat. I’m only taking one hat off and transitioning it to someone else.”

Fleming has noncompete clauses, but to listen to him, they really aren’t necessary.

“I have no desire to start anything new and I have no desire to join another company. I have a storybook career. I am so fortunate. Seventeen years. It’s amazing the different stages that I’ve had the opportunity to go through. I love Torc.”


Less than zero?

“Remember I was your hero, yeah I’d wear your heart like a symbol. I couldn’t save you from my darkest truth of all. I know I’ll always be less than zero.” — The Weeknd

The bloom really is off the rose for special purpose acquisition companies. The total number of new SPAC listings in July was, wait for it, zero, according to SPACInsider.

Tighter Securities and Exchange Commission regulations and general sense in the market that the expedited way to bring a company public may not be worth it is playing out almost weekly, especially in transportation SPACs. 

Hyzon Motors is the latest to acknowledge it is in trouble. Before that Romeo Power effectively gave up its independence, being acquired, ironically, by Nikola Corp., itself a former SPAC that appears to have largely escaped its own troubles.

Money is getting tight as initial payouts from their mergers run out. Young companies facing the glare from the hot lights of Wall Street’s quarterly pressure to perform are reaching for lifelines to stay afloat. Lordstown Motors, for example, effectively sold itself to Taiwan chipmaker and electric vehicle wannabe FoxConn.

Embark Trucks, which has “strong buy” recommendations from three of four analysts that follow the autonomous software developer, recently completed a 1-for-20 reverse stock split, swapping one new common share for 20 pre-split shares. That propped up its sagging stock price, which had sunk to the low single digits. Embark shares traded at $11.62 intraday Friday.

Nikola beat the bushes to get proxies, allowing an increase in authorized shares to 800 million from 600 million. Lion Electric, Xos Trucks and others have “at-the-market” arrangements to sell additional shares to raise money.


In the news …

Norwegian hydrogen company Nel ASA, an early partner providing hydrogen electrolyzers to Nikola, said Wednesday it has sold all of its 1.1 million shares in the electric-truck company for  $7.5 million. “The sale doesn’t in any way influence the good working relationship with Nikola,” NEL said, according to Dow Jones Newswires.


Enel X Way North America has purchased more than 250 direct fast chargers from Australia-based Tritium for deployment across the U.S., pairing Tritium’s direct-current fast-charging technology with Enel X Way’s smart EV charging platform.  

The chargers are expected to qualify for a tax credit of 30% or up to $100,000 each under the Inflation Reduction Act signed into law by President Biden. Tritium will build the chargers at a new plant in Tennessee beginning this fall. The chargers should meet the Federal Highway Administration’s Buy America compliance requirement in the first quarter of 2023.


Briefly noted …

Paccar Inc. will purchase Cummins X15N 15-liter natural gas engines for Kenworth and Peterbilt trucks when they become available in 2024. … Xos has formed a strategic partnership with NationaLease, among the full-service truck leasing organizations in North America with more than 900 locations and 165,000 vehicles.


That’s it for this week. Thanks for reading. Click here to get Truck Tech via email on Fridays.

Alan

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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.