There’s a healthy demand for driverless trucks. It’s an industry predicted to reach 6,700 units globally, totaling $54.23 billion this year, and one that stands to save the logistics and shipping industry $70 billion annually while boosting productivity by 30 percent. Besides cost savings, the growth is driven in part by a shortage of human drivers. In 2018, the American Trucking Associates estimated that 50,000 more truckers were needed to close the gap in the U.S., even despite the sidelining of proposed U.S. Transportation Department screenings for sleep apnea.
TuSimple is one of the companies vying for a slice of the market. For the better part of four years, the China-based startup has been developing trucks at its R&D lab in San Diego and test operations facility in Tuscon that can drive depot-to-depot without human intervention. By all accounts, it’s made remarkable progress: TuSimple is currently taking three to five fully autonomous, revenue-generating trips a day for a dozen customers (including Fortune 100 companies and “household names”) on three (and soon four) different routes in Arizona, and will by June expand the size of its U.S. fleet from 11 to 50 trucks. It hopes to end 2019 with a 200-truck fleet in the U.S. and 300-truck fleet in China, which would make it the largest self-driving truck solutions company in the world.
Toward that end, TuSimple today announced that it completed a $95 million series D financing round in December 2018 led by Sina Corp — a technology company best known for Chinese microblogging site Weibo — and Hong Kong-based investment firm Composite Capital. It comes after $55 million series C and $20 million series B funding rounds in November 2017 and August 2017, respectively, bringing the company’s total capital raised to $178.1 million at a pre-money valuation of $1 billion.
The proceeds from this latest round will be used to fund production programs with OEM, Tier 1, and sensor partners — including supplier Cummins Inc. — in order to achieve “full commercialization,” said Dr. Xiaodi Hou, founder, president, and chief technology officer of TuSimple. The core of the company’s current work, he added, is the integration of TuSimple’s autonomous software with powertrain, braking, and steering systems.
“Autonomous driving is one of the most complex AI systems humans have ever built. After three years of intense focus to reach our technical goals, we have moved beyond research into the serious work of building a commercial solution,” Hou said. “We are thankful for the continued support of our investors and partners. This is not only a great sign of confidence in TuSimple, but also for the future of autonomous trucking.”
TuSimple claims its Class 8 semi-trucks are level 4 under the guidelines penned by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), meaning they’re capable of full autonomy in controlled (and often geofenced) highways and local streets. Unlike self-driving perception platforms from the likes of Uber and Waymo, TuSimple’s is decidedly camera-forward: Using an eight-camera array and other sensors, it can detect cars, pedestrians, and other obstacles up to 1,000 meters away, even in inclement weather (but not at night). That’s compared to the roughly 250-to-300-meter range driverless systems dependent on lidar — i.e., laser-based sensors that bounce light off of objects to help map them digitally in three dimensions — are typically able to see.
TuSimple is hardly a fly-by-night operation. Hou, who founded the company after earning a Ph.D. in computer vision from CalTech, led teams of engineers to develop a specialized combination of algorithms and cameras tailor-made for driverless trucks. TuSimple’s semis — which tap Nvidia’s Drive PX 2 computer and Jetson TX2 embedded system-on-module to power its driverless platform (Nvidia’s an investor) — have completed 200-mile rides between San Diego and Yuma, Arizona, along routes carefully plotted with high-definition maps and three millimeter-wave radar units.
TuSimple says its approach enables it to achieve “centimeter-level” accuracy for truck positioning even in tunnels, and allows for plenty of leeway in real-time decision-making. (It takes a truck 30 seconds to cover 1,000 meters.) It also claims better efficiency than its competitors; by keeping aware of traffic flow far ahead, TuSimple contends its trucks are able to maintain a given speed more consistently than human drivers and competing autonomous vehicle systems, cutting fuel consumption by as much as 15 percent.
“Operating on a highway is almost a social thing,” Chuck Price, partner and vice president of product at TuSimple, told VentureBeat in an earlier phone interview. “Systems have to understand merging and changing lanes and mimic those sorts of human behaviors to the extent that they can.”
TuSimple has plenty in the way of competition, like Thor Trucks, Pronto.ai, and Aurora — the latter of which attracted a $530 million investment this month at a valuation over $2 billion. There’s also Ike, a self-driving truck startup founded by former Apple, Google, and Uber Advanced Technologies Group engineers that last week raised $52 million, and venture-backed Swedish driverless car company Einride. Meanwhile, Paz Eshel and former Uber and Otto engineer Don Burnette recently secured $40 million for startup Kodiak Robotics. That’s not to mention Embark, which integrates its self-driving systems into Peterbilt semis and which last month launched a pilot with Amazon to haul cargo, and driverless truck solutions from incumbents like Daimler and Volvo.
But that competition hasn’t deterred investors like Colin Xie, vice general manager of Sina Corp’s investment department, who believe that TuSimple is poised to lead the way.
“TuSimple consistently reaches their milestones on and ahead of schedule, and we are confident that they are poised to bring the first commercial self-driving trucks to market,” he said. “We are focused on finding the global leaders in artificial intelligence and TuSimple is ahead of the pack. The combination of technical excellence and an impressive leadership team has propelled the company into unicorn status.”
TuSimple currently employs about 100 people stateside, mainly in Arizona. It plans to hire on an additional 500 in the next two years.