Autonomous Trucks Take Off Rapidly in China’s Commercial Operations

A Plus autonomous truck
SF Express has selected Plus for China’s first commercial freight pilot. (Plus)

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BEIJING — Driverless trucks will help revamp the logistics and industrial sector in China, as autonomous driving technologies have taken off in the country amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Plus, a leading company in self-driving truck technology, launched China’s first commercial freight pilot project recently in cooperation with SF Express. As part of the ongoing pilot, Plus is running its supervised autonomous trucks on two longhaul routes from China’s Wuhan to Wuxi, which is about 900 miles round trip, and Changshu to Wuhan, which is 1,000 miles round trip.

“The logistics industry around the world is undergoing a sea change driven by the explosive growth of e-commerce and demand for faster deliveries. The unmanned technology is to address the critical business issues fleets are facing today keeping their drivers happy and productive, reducing operating costs, and meeting sustainability goals,” said Shawn Kerrigan, COO and co-founder of Plus.

Kerrigan noted that the company developed PlusDrive, which is designed to keep a professional truck operator in the vehicle to supervise the autonomous driving system, and that allows SF Express to optimize the efficiency of its current fleet and not to wait years for full driverless trucks to be ready.

Uisee, another leading autonomous driving firm, said it achieved year-over-year sales growth of 150% last year despite the COVID-19 pandemic. By cooperating with industry leaders such as Changan Minsheng Logistics, FAW Logistics, BASF and Dongfeng Motor, the company has been developing Level 4 autonomous driving logistics capabilities.

At the beginning of this year, the company has raised over 1 billion yuan ($150 million) in its latest round of fundraising. It also marked the first time that the National Manufacturing Transformation and Upgrade Fund, a 50.1-billion-yuan state-owned fund to promote the country’s manufacturing industry, had invested in a self-driving company.

Global management consulting firm Bain & Co. said China has become the world’s largest road transportation market, with a fleet of more than 5 million heavy trucks and over 14 million light and medium trucks.

He Xiaofei, founder and CEO of Fabu, who was also former deputy president and a top self-driving expert of Chinese ride-hailing giant Didi Chuxing, left Didi and founded the company in 2017 and has raised an undisclosed sum from Sinovation Ventures, a Beijing-based leading early-stage venture capital firm.

“Compared with driverless passenger vehicles, commercial vehicles including unmanned trucks follow a fixed route, for example from one warehouse to another, and run in a relatively simple way,” He said, adding it’s also one of the reasons why autonomous trucks are likely to be commercialized faster than passenger vehicles.

Alex Zhang, partner and head of the industrial group at investment firm FountainVest, said: “Self-driving technology will be transformational for the trucking industry by making our world safer and greener, and helping fleets drive with more fuel efficiency and reduce operating costs.”

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