While some tech innovators have recently slowed their roll into the nascent autonomous vehicle market, one industry leader hasn’t hit the brakes and seems to be shifting gears.
San Diego-based TuSimple recently announced expanding partnerships and routes for its self-driving long-haul trucks, 40 of which have already been operating between Phoenix and Dallas for UPS, with additional routes planned into Tucson and El Paso, Texas, according to a March 25 press release.
“UPS Ventures made a first-of-its-kind strategic investment in autonomous ground transportation when it invested in TuSimple in August of last year after a successful on-going pilot program that started in March of 2019. The addition of a new route and an expanded number of runs is a vote of confidence for TuSimple as the company works to expand its autonomous capabilities and demonstrate the first driverless operation in 2021,” company officials stated.
Another key client already shipping products on TuSimple’s robo-trucks is McClane Company, a wholesale supplier of grocery and non-food items to convenience stores, drug stores, restaurant chains and other outlets throughout the U.S.
The company is poised to become the first trucking company to implement driverless technology in a real, commercially sustainable way, according to TuSimple president Cheng Lu.
“The network is the first of its kind to address how you can bring autonomy to the market at scale. This announcement is a big deal for us because it shows a clear roll-out plan of how we intend to build this out,” Mr. Lu told Forbes in July.
With facilities in Tucson, Shanghai and Beijing, the company aims to deploy commercial Level 4 autonomous trucks to the shipping industry in 2021 — though for now, all of their rigs still take a human drivers along for the ride.
By 2023, the company plans to expand into routes between Los Angeles and Jacksonville, Florida before opening nationwide in 2024.
What is Level 4 automation?
SAE International (née the Society of Automotive Engineers) is a global standards-developing organization for engineers in the automobile industry.
The organization has created a taxonomy to describe the various levels of vehicle autonomy, from Level 0 to Level 5.
In levels 0 through 3, a human is driving the vehicle and must provide constant supervision — including steering, braking and acceleration — while on-board systems may provide limited assistance.
At Level 0, computer assistance provides only warnings and immediate help, such as automatically applying brakes in an emergency, or issuing an alert if the car’s driver wanders into another lane or when another vehicle is hidden within a blind spot.
With Level 1 autonomy, also called driver assistance, features may include help to steer, brake or accelerate in support of the human driver, while providing lane centering or adaptive cruise control.
Level 2, also called partial automation, is similar, but allows for both lane centering and adaptive cruise control.
At levels 3 through 5, a human is no longer driving the vehicle once automated features are engaged, even if they are riding in the driver’s seat.
Level 3, called conditional automation, includes vehicles which allow for some automation, but with features designed for specific circumstance only. The driver may be required to take back control at any time.
One such feature, called a traffic jam chauffeur or traffic jam pilot, automatically navigates through stop-and-go freeway conditions.
While Level 4 autonomy, called high automation, also only functions under limited circumstances and only on certain routes, the driver is not required to take control in such situations.
Some of these vehicles may not have a steering wheel or gas pedals installed.
The ultimate goal, Level 5, envisions vehicles that can drive themselves with no human help on all roads and under any conceivable conditions.
Though some companies are testing Level 5 technology — such as Tesla, whose CEO Elon Musk recently announced that his company will deploy it as early as this year — no Level 5 vehicles are on the road as yet.
According to a June 2019 report from the U.S. Census Bureau, driving delivery trucks and large tractor-trailers ranks among the country’s single-largest occupations, with more than 3.5 million truck drivers employed in the U.S. — an all-time high.
Comprising more than 711,000 businesses, the industry employs nearly double the number of veterans — one in 10 — than workers in general. The median age of drivers is 46 and they earn an estimated $43,252 per year on average, based on Census Bureau statistics.
Driver salaries, while not competitive with some professional fields, offer better earning potential than many other blue-collar careers, the agency stated.
But as autonomous technologies advance and more companies field self-driving trucks, advocates fear human drivers will lose their jobs en masse.
Citing a 2017 study by the Center for Global Policy Solutions, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters said the technology is a massive job killer.
“… millions [of] jobs will likely be lost if a rapid transition is made to automate the industry. That would be devastating in this well-paying field where more than 93 percent of the workers have less than a college degree and would likely incur significant challenges in getting work at a similar wage,” union officials stated in a November 2019 blog post.
The transition to driverless trucks should be implemented carefully and in stages to provide training and new opportunities for human drivers displaced by robotic trucks, the Teamsters argue.
“It is necessary to make certain that there is an adequate safety net, job-placement services, educational and training opportunities, and new jobs that can support these workers if they need to transition to new employment. But for now, there is no sign that is happening,” union officials stated.
For their part, TuSimple partnered with Pima Community College to develop college courses aimed at transitioning truck drivers into careers in the driverless truck industry.
The certificate program, called Autonomous Vehicle Driver & Operations Specialist, is only open to those who already have a Class A commercial driver’s license.
Curricula focus on teaching drivers to interact with the technology, along with computer hardware basics, electrical systems and domestic freight transportation, as well as safety, health and environmental regulations.
Completing the coursework could lead to positions as an autonomous commercial vehicle driver trainee, co-driver or operations specialist, according to the college’s website.
“Graduates who complete this program may have job opportunities available at TuSimple’s testing and development center,” school officials state.