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California Self-driving Startup TuSimple Partners Volkswagen's Truck Unit Traton Group to Develop Driverless Trucks

California Self-driving Startup TuSimple Partners Volkswagen's Truck Unit Traton Group to Develop Driverless Trucks

Author: Eric Walz   

The Traton Group, which is the commercial truck division of German automaker Volkswagen, is partnering with California self-driving truck startup TuSimple on the development of autonomous trucks.

The two companies announced today a global partnership to develop Level 4 self-driving trucks for the European market. The collaboration is the first of its kind in Europe. As part of the partnership, the Traton Group will take a minority stake in TuSimple.

Traton's goal is to test driverless truck fleets on roads throughout Sweden, Germany and other countries. The rollout of self-driving trucks might help address the shortage of truck drivers that is expected to increase over the next decade and beyond. 

TuSimple and Traton have already launched a development program to operate the first autonomous hub-to-hub truck route in Sweden between the cities of Södertälje and Jönköping using trucks built by Swedish truck maker Scania, which is a subsidiary of the Traton Group. 

The first test vehicles are already being deployed. TuSimple and Traton are aiming for SAE Level 4 automation, meaning that the trucks will require no human intervention for normal operation.

"The global partnership with TuSimple is another step towards becoming a global champion. Innovative future technologies that provide additional value to our customers represent a key part of our strategy," said Matthias Gründler, Chief Executive Officer at TRATON GROUP. 

TuSimple, which is based in San Diego, CA, was founded in 2015 with the goal of bringing level-4 autonomous driving technology to the trucking industry, which is poised for disruption with autonomous driving technology. The company bills itself as a software company, with a foundation in computer vision, algorithms, mapping and artificial intelligence for self-driving vehicles.

TuSimple has been testing its technology over the past several years with several million test kilometers on public roads in the U.S. 

In August of last year, the United Parcel Service (UPS) announced it bought a minority stake in TuSimple. UPS is the world's largest package delivery company. The two companies have been testing the TuSimple autonomous trucks since May 2019 on a busy freight route in Arizona, but now are expanding the tests to Europe.

"Our partnership with TRATON GROUP accelerates the introduction of autonomous truck technology to new international markets, and we look forward to our global partnership," said Cheng Lu, President, TuSimple. "The TRATON GROUP has an excellent reputation and established a portfolio of world-class truck brands, their strategic investment in TuSimple is a powerful testimony to our technology and approach."

Much of TuSimple's focus is in the fields of perception and night vision. The startup designed a longer range camera-based perception system that's required for  larger semi trucks, as the big trucks can weigh up to 80,000 lbs when fully loaded and need ample time to stop if needed. TuSimple's perception system has a vision range of 1,000 meters, which is much further than any other autonomous perception system today for self-driving, according to the company.

In March, TuSimple announced a new partnership with automotive components supplier ZF. The company will serve as TuSimple's default supplier for the hardware components required for autonomous driving. 

ZF will support the development of the company's pre-production self-driving system and eventually a scalable, production-ready system for the company's commercial self-driving trucks. 

TuSimple and ZF will co-develop production-quality cameras, LiDAR, radar systems, steering components, as well as ZF's scalable and powerful automotive-grade processor ZF ProAI built using NVIDIA chips, which will run the AI-powered algorithms and software for autonomous driving. NVIDIA is also an investor in TuSimple via its venture capital arm NVIDIA GPU Ventures. 

Many industry analysts believe that self-driving trucks will be deployed before vehicles designed to carry passengers. From an engineering standpoint, its easier to develop driverless trucks for long stretches of highways than it is to safely operate self-driving cars in busy urban areas around pedestrians and bicyclists. 

TuSimple compares its self-driving trucks to a railroad, with trucks traveling fixed routes like a train traveling between two points.

The use of self-driving trucks offers shippers powerful advantages for long-distance freight transportation and can increase safety and efficiency, as the driverless trucks can operate 24 hours a day without restrictions. The driverless trucks traveling at fixed speeds in autonomous mode can also reduce fuel consumption and operating costs.

In addition to the partnership with the Traton Group in Europe, TuSimple plans to continue its testing in the U.S.

In July, TuSimple announced the launch of an autonomous freight delivery service with some of the world's leading shipping companies, including its existing partner United Parcel Service (UPS). The company is also working with Penske, U.S. Xpress, and McLane. TuSimple says its the world's first autonomous freight delivery service. Although the trucks are operating in autonomous mode, for now there are trained drivers sitting behind the wheel to monitor the trucks' operation.

By 2021, TuSimple plans to operate seven routes between Phoenix, Tucson, El Paso and Dallas as part of its autonomous shipping network. These routes consist almost exclusively of major highways.

The second phase rollout will link Phoenix with cities further east, including Nashville, Atlanta and Tampa. By 2024, TuSimple plans to link north to the cities of Chicago, Boston and New York.

The company is hoping that the federal government will come up with a regulatory framework, by then, so that the self-driving freight vehicles can legally operate on public roads in the U.S.

Eric Walz
Eric Walz
Originally hailing from New Jersey, Eric is a automotive & technology reporter covering the high-tech industry here in Silicon Valley. He has over 15 years of automotive experience and a bachelors degree in computer science. These skills, combined with technical writing and news reporting, allows him to fully understand and identify new and innovative technologies in the auto industry and beyond. He has worked at Uber on self-driving cars and as a technical writer, helping people to understand and work with technology.
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