TuSimple Takes a LiDAR-Free Approach to Autonomous Trucks: Page 2 of 2

AI startup TuSimple is taking on autonomous trucking by providing semi-trucks with level 4 autonomy without the help of LiDAR.

Will the emergence of electric trucks further alter the landscape? Electric trucks manufactured by companies like Tesla seem to be rising right alongside autonomous vehicles. But Hou doesn't believe the two are necessarily related. “People are always talking about electric trucks, but it has little to do with autonomous driving,” he said. “Is it good to have an electric vehicle? Yes, because the response time for an actuation improves. For example, if you want to have more torque on one of the wheels, we can control that more precisely than on a diesel engine. We can also easily draw power from the unit. But those are the only things that I feel will be good to have. Those are perks, but they're not going to change the overall course of autonomous driving. EVs are good to have, but not mandatory for autonomous driving.”

Machine Learning Is 'Deep' Enough

TuSimple's timeline is right on track with analyst predictions that level 4 autonomous vehicles (vehicles capable of full autonomy within a specific driving domain) would be in testing and pilot programs this year. While TuSimple's system equips trucks with level 4 autonomous capability, Hou isn't caught up in the labels and classifications. “Level 4 is what we're currently working on,” he said. “And there's a huge difference between level 3 and level 4, but I do not see a clear gap between 4 and 5. For example, for level 5, you have to remove the steering wheel. But since we don't want to build a vehicle by ourselves, we're fine calling ourselves level 4.”

A TuSimple autonomous truck on display outside of the 2018 GPU Technology Conference (GTC). (Image source: Design News) 

He added that at the end of the day, TuSimple is about creating functions that serve its clients' business. “Level 4 or 5 is a terminology thing that doesn't really have much impact on us.”

TuSimple's AI is built primarily around machine learning. One would imagine a task as complex as piloting a truck would require significant deep learning capability, but Hou said that machine learning is more than sufficient. “We use a lot of deep learning, but deep is only a fraction of our code base,” he said. “People today are getting high on deep learning, but deep learning is getting shallower and shallower. And machine learning is as deep as before.”

This is also the reason TuSimple has chosen to take on the task of handling the 3D mapping for its autonomous trucks. “The reason we do the mapping by ourselves is, even though our vehicle can run without assistance from the map, we feel we need the reliability that comes with doing precomputations using the map so we can confidently drive on the road without running into situations where the algorithm fails,” Hou said. “An algorithm will always fail. But if we have a precomputed map and know where we are, it will be much easier to correct any failure and save us from any unpredictable circumstances.”

The camera system could generate real-time maps for the trucks and run on uncharted terrain, but Hou said such a system isn't as reliable. “The key to autonomous driving isn't about flashy technology; it's about reliability,” he said. “How can you guarantee your system is running 20 hours a day, six days a week, and you're indestructible? You have to be at that level to make sure this is a viable product.”

A Fully Supported Fleet

To date, TuSimple has done road tests for about 15,000 miles in China and the US combined. The company runs a 50,000-square-foot testing facility in Tuscon, AZ and an equivalent facility in Beijing that is 60,000 square feet. Arizona regulations allow TuSimple to conduct testing as long as human drivers are in place, and the company has access to a 40-mile stretch of highway in China for testing in mixed traffic.

“The benefit of having our own facility is it allows us to test the technology with real loads,” Price said. “It also allows us to test our business model. We're trying to have no negative disruption and very positive disruption in our ability to drive trucks longer; to go slower but get there faster, and these kinds of things.”

Price added that TuSimple plans to offer road assistance and service to clients. “If you get a flat tire when you've got a driver in the truck, you've got a ready-made solution because the driver can fix the tire himself or make a phone call. But when it's an autonomous truck without a driver, what do you do?”

When its systems are deployed in truck fleets, TuSimple will be able to constantly monitor the vehicles and provide some form of rescue service when an issue is detected—whether that's sending out a local repair service or even sending a human driver to the site. Price said this rescue service will be offered via a subscription model that will include remote map and software updates as well.

“The goal for a fleet is to require no additional burden,” he said.

Chris Wiltz is a Senior Editor at Design News covering emerging technologies including AI, VR/AR, and robotics.

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