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July 1, 2020 8:00 AM, EDT

TuSimple Partners With Major Fleets to Launch Autonomous Freight Network

Map shows planned rollout of TuSimple's Autonomous Freight NetworkTuSimple

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Self-driving truck developer TuSimple has partnered with four major transportation companies to launch a logistics network for its highly automated trucks, marking a new phase in its push to bring its technology to market in the coming years.

TuSimple’s Autonomous Freight Network, which will roll out in stages, consists of digitally mapped truck routes, strategically located terminals and an autonomous operations monitoring system dubbed TuSimple Connect. Together, these elements form the ecosystem necessary to support autonomous operation, the company said.

“This is how we will be able to ensure that our users will have access to autonomous capacity,” TuSimple President Cheng Lu told Transport Topics.

Through this network, TuSimple will use its self-driving trucks to haul freight for parcel giant UPS Inc., truckload carrier U.S. Xpress and grocery and food service distributor McLane Co. while continuing to validate and refine its automated driving system.

Penske Truck Leasing will help TuSimple expand its fleet operations nationwide while providing preventive maintenance for the automated vehicles.

TuSimple said the network will lay the groundwork for fleets to eventually begin deploying their own autonomous trucks equipped with its self-driving technology, a milestone the company aims to achieve in 2024.

TuSimple is designing its system to enable SAE Level 4 automated driving. This means that under certain conditions, the vehicle would be able to drive itself without human input or intervention.

Today, TuSimple’s self-driving trucks always have a safety driver behind the wheel as a backup, but the company intends to make unmanned, fully autonomous operation a reality in the years ahead.

TuSimple's Cheng Lu

TuSimple's Cheng Lu

Lu acknowledged that factory-produced Level 4 trucks are at least several years away, but said his company plans to demonstrate that it can operate commercially without a driver on board in 2021.

“We will have a driverless demonstration on a commercial route with commercial cargo and a real customer,” Lu said.

TuSimple also plans to expand its Autonomous Freight Network geographically over time.

Initially, the network will be limited to the Southwest, with freight service connecting Phoenix; Tucson, Ariz.; El Paso, Texas; Dallas, Houston and San Antonio.

Next, TuSimple plans to add service between Los Angeles and Jacksonville, Fla., in 2022-23 to connect the East and West coasts.

From there, the company aims to expand across major shipping lanes throughout the contiguous 48 states in 2023-24.

When that nationwide rollout is complete, TuSimple plans to replicate the same strategy in Europe and Asia.

TuSimple, founded in 2015, is based in San Diego and operates facilities in Tucson, Shanghai and Beijing.

The startup company said its technology can significantly enhance the efficiency of longhaul trucking operations by boosting asset utilization and reducing costs.

A TuSimple truck

TuSimple already operates autonomously on seven different routes. (TuSimple)

Lu envisions Level 4 automation giving rise to a new form of intermodal operations, where trucks piloted by drivers continue to handle short hauls while autonomous trucks emerge as an option for longer-distance freight movements.

Although Level 4 trucking is not scalable to every nook and store front, it is well-suited to repeating the mundane, longhaul routes on interstate highways where driver recruiting and retention pose significant challenges for fleets, he said. “That’s where you can outsource to this new mode of transportation.”

TuSimple has been hauling freight for a growing list of carriers and shippers in recent years, providing the company a revenue stream as it prepares to commercialize its technology.

The partnership with U.S. Xpress, for example, gives TuSimple access to more lanes to help the technology developer further refine its system.

“For the past two years, U.S. Xpress has worked closely with TuSimple to help define carriers’ needs for L4 trucks,” said Eric Fuller, CEO of U.S. Xpress. “We are interested in understanding how TuSimple technology can make our fleet safer and more fuel efficient as well as how it can improve the overall delivery experience for our professional drivers and customers.”

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U.S. Xpress, based in Chattanooga, Tenn., ranks No. 24 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest for-hire carriers in North America.

Penske Truck Leasing, which has more than 750 service facilities across North America, will help TuSimple grow its fleet operations and provide service and maintenance for the automated trucks.

“Penske has always been committed to supporting its customers and innovation when it comes to mobility,” said Bill Combs, Penske’s vice president of connected vehicle strategy and experimentation. “We look forward to our continued collaboration with TuSimple and supporting their fleet needs as this new freight network begins to scale.”

In mid-2019, TuSimple’s trucks hauled mail and packages across the Southwest through a two-week pilot program with the U.S. Postal Service.

TuSimple currently operates 40 trucks in the United States to conduct tests and deliver cargo. Those operations include about 90 revenue-generating freight runs per week for its customers, including UPS, McLane and U.S. Xpress, Lu said.

UPS ranks No. 1 on TT’s Top 100 for-hire list and Penske Logistics ranks No. 15. McLane ranks No. 8 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest private carriers in North America.

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