Why self-driving trucks will take over before self-driving cars
Autonomous cars are much in the news, mostly because of the collisions that are bound to happen as we mix human and robot drivers. These raise obvious questions — who pays when a robocar kills? — but the uproar over safety overlooks the fact that autonomous technology will take over commercial trucking long before the average person has to decide whether to ride in a robo-cab. Companies are building autonomous trucks today for the controlled environments of shipping ports and large industrial sites (which already have self-driving forklifts!).
Leading the charge on self-driving trucks is TuSimple, a company with dual headquarters in Beijing, China, and in San Diego, California, plus a testing facility in Tucson, Arizona. TuSimple has identified port terminal tractors as an ideal first application for autonomous vehicles. The firm even made a video of its technology in action.
Port operations are perfect for autonomous vehicles for a number of reasons, but primarily because of the closed and controlled environment in the terminal grounds. Cargo ships are loaded and unloaded and the containers are stacked in neat blocks and closely tracked. Terminal facilities are closed to the public due to safety and customs issues. Roadways are wide and the full map of a port storage yard is comparatively simple. To top it all off, speeds inside the facility are kept low, which creates a perfect scenario for autonomous vehicles.
“This is a great place for autonomous trucks,” explained Chuck Price, Vice President of Product at TuSimple. “With a fully autonomous vehicle, it allows us to introduce our technology into the environment without any infrastructure change in the port. It’s a very quick introduction. They’re very excited about it, and we’re excited to be able to be a part of it.”
TuSimple has been operating a test fleet of autonomous port terminal tractors in China, and it’s gaining attention there.
“There is significant interest and it’s probably worth noting that the dominant port operator worldwide is a Chinese company,” Price told Digital Trends. “About 70-plus percent of ports are operated by the Chinese entity that we are actually working with in China doing the technology.”
TuSimple is not only unique in its choice of first applications. The company’s implementation of autonomous driving is also different from other approaches. Instead of relying on laser-based radar (LIDAR), the TuSimple technology is primarily based on cameras.