As they gathered around a video screen tracking progress of Ghost Rider — the first Class 8 truck with no human driver — navigating its way west toward Phoenix from Tucson, Arizona, TuSimple executives found themselves speechless.
“I mean, we had to kind of take in that moment,” TuSimple President and CEO Cheng Lu told FreightWaves. “You know, with all the work we put into this, and to see it really happen on the highway, I think the word we used most was speechless.”
TuSimple (NASDAQ: TSP) launched its latest but still upfitted Class 8 Navistar LT for the 80-mile nighttime run on Dec. 22, an incident-free journey covering 80 miles in an hour and 20 minutes.
Watch now: TuSimple’s first driver out pilot test run
Robot truck driving takes a lot of practice. TuSimple was confident it was ready after validation testing in the program named for the Marvel comic book antihero Ghost Rider. Marvel superhero names such as Hulk are code for certain test drives. Even the name of the computer software control system — Oversight — pays homage to an obscure bit of comics lore.
For months, TuSimple pointed to Q4 as the target for its “driver out” pilot program.
‘No reason to rush’
“If we felt like we were not ready, we would not do it,” Lu said. “The end of the year [was] an arbitrary deadline.There was no reason for us to rush this for the sake of getting something at year end. At the end of the day, autonomous driving is a long game.”
That’s why more test runs lie ahead, perhaps on other routes for which TuSimple has created high-definition maps for the virtual driver robots to read.
“Whether you do this here versus somewhere in the Texas triangle, it’s roughly the same,” he said, referring to the state’s five largest cities — Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin, San Antonio and Houston.
The reaction of other drivers to vacant tractors is part of the consideration. Watching the live video feed of Ghostrider, Lu saw a motorist slow down and do a double take when he realized the TuSimple truck had no one in the cab.
“We literally have people trying to take a video of the truck,” he said. “These are all things you have to capture. It’s not only being able to drive normally, but we also have to be very defensive when driving … and to slowly get the public comfortable with the idea that there are self-driving trucks on the roads.”
Increased reliability will come when the autonomous driving system is integrated into a purpose-built truck. TuSimple is working with Navistar to offer such a truck in 2024.
“The hardware is more reliable,” Lu said. “There’s going to be more automotive-grade components like the steering columns, braking sensors. From here, we know exactly where we need to go, and we just have to spend the time, resources and [do the] engineering work.”
‘More work, but it’s close’
Lu declined to quantify TuSimple’s work relative to completion. “There’s obviously more work, but it’s close,” he said.
TuSimple breaks down the task into three pursuits: the virtual driving system software, the truck’s hardware and the company’s autonomous freight network.
“If you look at each one, we don’t see any insurmountable research problems that maybe competitors of ours are having to prove,” Lu said. “I think we’ve passed that. Of course, there is engineering work. That’s why we have a lot of capital, a lot of very smart people and we keep working hard to get partners.
“Our work is not done. This is not a one-time event. This is part of our ongoing commercial development.”