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SAN DIEGO — Self-driving truck developer Plus provided industry executives a firsthand look at its “driver-in” automated driving system in action at American Trucking Associations’ 2022 Management Conference & Exhibition.
The company’s PlusDrive product, introduced last year, automates steering, braking and acceleration during highway driving, but still requires a human driver to remain engaged at all times with feet off the pedals but eyes on the road and hands on the wheel.
During a ride-along demonstration for Transport Topics, Plus showcased the capabilities of its PlusDrive product on a stretch of Interstate 5 in San Diego and the surrounding area.
After the truck merged onto the freeway, test fleet operator Michael Crystal double tapped a button on the steering wheel to engage the automated driving system.
At that point, the system automatically kept the truck centered in its lane with no driver input and adjusted the vehicle’s speed to maintain a safe following distance and leave space for other vehicles merging on to the freeway.
The driver can resume manual control at any time.
“I’m still very much in control,” Crystal said. “Whenever I want the system to be doing the driving, it can.”
Here’s a look at #PlusDrive in action. It’s a highly automated driving system that automates acceleration, braking and steering on freeways, but still requires the driver to actively supervise the system. #Plus #ATAmce22 pic.twitter.com/2FcbctBFLU— Seth Clevenger (@SethClevenger) October 22, 2022
PlusDrive will not activate on surface streets but is designed to work on any freeway.
The system also can automate lane changes, but only when the driver initiates it. The driver uses the turn signal to request a lane change, then the system automatically moves the truck into the adjacent lane as soon as it is safe to do so.
PlusDrive includes safeguards to ensure the driver remains attentive. The system issues an audible alert if it doesn’t detect the driver’s hands on the wheel for 15 seconds. If the driver still doesn’t respond within another 15 seconds, the vehicle begins to slow down and eventually will come to a stop. At the same time, a driver-facing camera tracks the driver’s head movement to detect if the driver is looking away from the road for an extended period or starting to fall asleep behind the wheel.
Crystal, a professional driver for 30 years, said the PlusDrive system creates a more comfortable driving experience and makes the job easier.
“I wish I had it earlier in my career,” said Crystal, who joined Plus in 2019.
Plus’ “supervised autonomy” product represents a different approach from some other autonomous truck developers that are focusing their initial products on enabling fully autonomous, unmanned operations for certain routes and under certain conditions.
The front of the Plus truck. (Seth Clevenger/Transport Topics)
Instead, Plus intends to gradually pave the way for fully autonomous, unmanned trucking by gaining billions of miles of experience with its driver-assist product that it can use to further refine its technology.
In a separate interview, Plus co-founder and Chief Operating Officer Shawn Kerrigan made the case that automated driving can provide significant benefits today as a driver-assist product by enhancing safety, improving driver comfort and reducing fuel consumption. He did not disclose pricing information for PlusDrive but said the system can provide a return on investment in about two years.
“We see this really as a new product category, which we call highly automated driving,” Kerrigan said. “It’s providing the capability for the vehicle to drive in a supervised manner.”
Plus, founded in 2016, recently moved to new headquarters in Santa Clara, Calif., and has operations in the United States, China and Europe.
The company has been actively deploying its PlusDrive system with fleet customers, including Amazon.com, which has agreed to purchase at least 1,000 retrofit units, according to a 2021 filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
PlusDrive will not activate on surface streets but is designed to work on any freeway. (Seth Clevenger/Transport Topics)
Plus can install PlusDrive on fleet customers’ new and existing Class 8 trucks through a partnership with technology deployment firm Velociti.
Installers typically can complete the upfit in eight to nine hours, said Amit Kumar, Plus’ vice president of engineering.
The system is designed to work on multiple truck makes. For the ridealong demonstration, Plus used a Peterbilt sleeper tractor equipped with its automated driving sensors and software. The company also showcased an International tractor outfitted with PlusDrive at MCE.
The system’s sensor suite incorporates seven cameras, two lidar sensors and three long-range radar sensors to monitor the truck’s surroundings.
PlusDrive also can “layer over” existing safety systems such as Bendix Wingman and ZF OnGuard, Kumar said.
Plus envisions highly automated driver-assist technology gaining widespread acceptance across the trucking industry in the years ahead.
“We think this is going to become the norm over time,” said Lauren Kwan, Plus’ vice president of marketing.
She compared it to other technologies such as automated transmissions that initially saw slow adoption but eventually became commonplace throughout the industry.
“That’s the same path we see for this type of highly automated driving system,” she said.
The company also provided live demonstrations of PlusDrive at MCE 2021 in Nashville, Tenn.
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