(CNN)Right now, there’s a shortage of truck drivers in the US and worldwide, exacerbated by the e-commerce boom brought on by the pandemic.One solution to the problem is autonomous trucks, and several companies are in a race to be the first to launch one. Among them is San Diego-based TuSimple.Founded in 2015, TuSimple has completed about 2 million miles of road tests with its 70 prototype trucks across the US, China and Europe. Although these are simply commercially available trucks retrofitted with its technology, TuSimple has deals in place with two of the world’s largest truck manufacturers — Navistar in the US and Traton, Volkswagen’s trucking business, in Europe — to design and build fully autonomous models, which it hope
TuSimple’s latest road test involved hauling fresh produce 951 miles, from Nogales, Arizona to Oklahoma City. The pickup and the dropoff were handled by a human driver, but for the bulk of the route — from Tucson to Dallas — the truck drove itself.”Today, because the system is not fully ready, we have a safety driver and a safety engineer on board at all times when we’re testing, but we drove in full autonomy: the driver wasn’t touching the wheel,” said Cheng Lu, TuSimple’s president and CEO.The journey was completed in 14 hours versus the usual 24 with a human driver, mostly because a truck doesn’t need to sleep. “In the US, a driver can only work 11 hours a day. We simply had a handoff when our first pair of drivers had to stop because they reached their 11 hours of operation,” said Lu. That, of course, negates the advantage of an autonomous system, so the idea is that once TuSimple’s trucks hit the market, there will be no need to have anyone onboard.
Unlike self-driving cars, which are a still a way from being commercially available, TuSimple trucks won’t be required to operate in bustling city traffic, but only on stretches of highway that have been thoroughly mapped via the company’s own software.”We collect data from the roads, and we create this very detailed, high definition map of each route. That adds another layer of safety for the vehicles,” said Lu. As a result, TuSimple’s trucks will only be able to self-drive along these pre-mapped trade corridors, which Lu calls “virtual railroads,” and nowhere else.