Editor’s note: Adds analyst reaction and closing share price
TuSimple claims it successfully completed an 80-mile nighttime run on Interstate 10 in Arizona with no driver in the cab — the first to reach the goal in the U.S. among many competitors working on robot-driven trucks.
San Diego-based TuSimple (NASDAQ: TSP) kept secret the timing of the first driverless pilot, announcing Wednesday that the upfitted Class 8 truck left a large rail yard in Tucson, Arizona, on Dec. 22 and covered surface streets and highways for an hour and 20 minutes before safely arriving at a high-volume distribution center in the Phoenix metro area.
Watch now: Highlights from TuSimple’s first driverless pilot run
The autonomous driving system navigated surface streets, traffic signals, on-ramps, off-ramps, emergency lane vehicles and highway lane changes in open traffic while naturally interacting with other motorists, TuSimple said in a press release.
The Arizona Department of Transportation and law enforcement collaborated on the initial run, which had no remote control or traffic intervention. But it wasn’t without precautions.
Watching ahead and behind
A TuSimple survey vehicle looked for anomalies five miles in front of the autonomous truck. An oversight vehicle capable of putting the truck in a minimal risk condition trailed the truck. Law enforcement vehicles followed half a mile behind, providing an extra layer of safety.
“This test reinforces what we believe is our unique position at the forefront of autonomous trucking, delivering advanced driving technology at commercial scale,” said Cheng Lu, TuSimple president and CEO, adding that the pilot demonstrates the “commercial maturity” of TuSimple’s technology.
TuSimple’s “Driver Out” pilot program has been 18 months in the making, developing a high-autonomy Level 4 semi-truck with redundancy, reliability and consistency to remove the human driver.
Taking the driver out reduces the operating cost of a semi by more than 40%, a key to the financial viability of driverless trucks, which are dramatically more expensive than conventional trucks. Additional savings come from the trucks operating practically around the clock except for scheduled maintenance.
Catalyst to stock growth?
In a note to investors, Morgan Stanley analyst Ravi Shanker cheered the TuSimple accomplishment. He previously predicted a successful driver-out run could be a 4:1 “risk-reward upside” for TuSimple’s stock price.
“Prior to this announcement we had felt ‘success’ could have come in different forms but that it boiled down to an accident-free run,” Shanker wrote. “However, we also believed going from terminal to terminal with zero disengagements, as is the case here, would be a best case scenario. As such, we feel comfortable calling TSP’s first Driver Out test an unqualified success.”
In an interview with FreightWaves, Lu was wary about comparing technology milestones to a scaled-up business in autonomous trucks. Overall, however, he cast a positive tone.
“I do think all of this will translate to our share price, our evaluation [and] investor confidence in TuSimple,” Lu said.
The market did not react positively on Wednesday. TuSimple shares fell 9.22% to $32.07 on volume more than three times its daily average.
Driver-out testing will continue in 2022
The driver-out pilot is a critical first step in scaling TuSimple’s Autonomous Freight Network (AFN), which has created high-definition maps from Arizona as far as Florida and North Carolina. TuSimple has surpassed 160,000 miles of driver-supervised autonomous freight runs for UPS (NYSE: UPS).
TuSimple earlier in December received a reservation for 100 software-equipped trucks from DHL, bringing to 6,875 the number of nonbinding reservations it has received for a ground-up autonomous truck it is building with Navistar International for sale in 2024.
“This year, we were laser-focused on putting our technology through a rigorous test on open public roads under real-world conditions, and to see all our hard work and dedication come together is extremely rewarding.” Lu said.
Driver-out testing will continue for several months in 2022, the company said.