Despite Grateful Dead songs romanticizing an itinerant life on the open road, being a truck driver is hard work. Weeks away from families and friends, living inside a cramped cabin, limited bathroom use, inadequate food choices, the monotony of sitting and driving for hours on end – it’s a difficult job, and it’s not for everyone.
And interstates are no longer regionally interesting; a shopping center with a Kohl’s, Dollar General and a Staples looks the same in Missouri as it does in California. Kids peering out the window requesting a honk? Now they’ve got their faces buried in screens.
Add to that the fact that the average truck driver makes less than $50,000 per year, despite rising pay, and it’s no wonder that America is in the midst of a truck driver shortage.
But people buy things. Packages need to be delivered. And the economy roars on. In order to ameliorate the problem, companies like Tu Simple are seeking to make artificial intelligence the answer.
Tu Simple is a tech startup that in February raised almost $100 million, and now has a valuation of close to $1 billion.
What’s with the excitement? Self-driving trucks. And a San Diego-based company, in a joint venture with China, aims to be the first on the open road. Other powerhouse companies are hard at work developing their own self-driving trucks, such as Google, Tesla and Amazon.
You Look Over and See a Driverless Truck Barreling Toward You…
Our acceptance level with computers controlling vehicles on limited-access highways may be higher compared to self-driving cars and trucks attempting to negotiate crowded city centers. With blind corners, bicyclists, dogs, clueless pedestrians texting while walking, hipsters with their air pods on, and cross-traffic, a city can potentially render an autonomous vehicle motionless.
On a highway, self-driving technology has fewer variables to sort, but speeds are much faster. Nevertheless, Tu Simple claims that so far, its technology’s detection range is three times as long as its competition. That means that when traveling at highway speeds, a Tu Simple autonomous semi-truck has 30 seconds to react to situations up ahead.
Tu Simple’s tech is looking 1,000 meters (3,281 feet) up the road, thanks to the nine cameras, five conventional radars and two laser radars onboard to monitor everything that’s going on, and everything requiring a reaction. It can merge the truck onto other highways at interchanges, pass slower vehicles or let others pass, veer away from hazards, and respond to a flurry of other dangers involved with highway driving.
For now, the company is still in beta mode. While its five trucks are taking some fully autonomous trips through California and Arizona, they’re still accompanied by at least two safety engineers; one behind the wheel, and the other observing the data. Expansion plans are underway, adding even more trucks to the test fleet with the hope of having the software ready by the end of 2019.
Of course, technology isn’t perfect. In my research into the company, I found an account of an impressed journalist on a ride-along, when, 20 minutes from their destination, the computer software froze, and the human backup driver had to take over. Human drivers have their own faults, of course, with their propensity for distraction, dozing off, suffering medical issues, and improperly responding to dangerous situations.
Technology might not be perfect, but it needs to be, or somewhere damn close to it. The whole point of this autonomous driving exercise is to improve safety. So keep on truckin’, Tu Simple engineers, because building public trust is tantamount to the success of these trucks.
No one wants to share the road with a menacing 40-ton 18-wheeler murder bot in a Stephen King novel-worthy scenario.