Self-driving big rigs could be future of long-haul trucking

Major companies are racing to get involved in the self-driving vehicle business. Uber is investing $400 million in a startup that is taking over its autonomous car operation. Walmart is planning on testing self-driving box trucks this year. And a company in California wants to have robotic vehicles deliver your groceries.

Now there are companies thinking much bigger in the ever-growing world of artificial intelligence: self-driving tractor-trailers.

San Diego-based in TuSimple is getting ready to launch a fleet of self-driving big rigs.

"The autonomous trucking industry is going to save the transportation industry 28% of their current expenses," said Lee White, a vice president at TuSimple.


It currently has more than 40 autonomous trucks in the United States. The plan is to start making deliveries in the Southwest later this year and then across the country by 2024.

Two humans are on board to make sure everything is flowing smoothly. But the plan is to go full artificial intelligence also in 2024.

"Our trucks can run day or night," White said. "They can run in rain and sunshine and they're very capable of operating in existing weather conditions."

So what keeps these trucks from crashing into us? Each one is armed with 20 cameras, five radars, and two lidars, which are remote sensors that use light.

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"That allows the truck to have a 360-degree view around the truck. That allows us to see out a thousand meters," White said. "And that allows the computers to analyze and evaluate and identify all the objects that truck is encountering."

He added that the company will not deploy autonomous trucking until the technology is "at or above human standards."

"And it will be a safe product. We are very focused," White said. "Everything that we've done at TuSimple was done on the foundation of safety."


White believes these self-driving trucks are expected to add jobs — not take them away. The trucks will go from a pick-up point to a drop-off point. Workers are needed to load and unload. And then truck drivers step in and bring the delivery to its final destination.

Self-operating technology can also be found on a construction site. Artificial intelligence is now manning the controls of bulldozers, loaders, and dump trucks.

"The truck picks up the dirt and takes it from one place to the other. So you don't need an operator, you just open up your laptop," SafeAI CEO Bibhrajit Halder said. "But also there is a safety override mechanism. If there is an operator around the site, they can stop the vehicle remotely."

Perhaps the biggest advantage of this technology is efficiency. Federal regulations dictate a driver stop after being on the road for 11 hours. That rule won't apply to autonomous trucks.

"One of the things that showed up in the data is truck drivers right now are reluctant and don't want to take these week-long trips," White said. "The truckers will be able to take the shorter runs and be home at night with their families. That's what they want."