Truck- and busmaker Navistar International Corp is partnering with self-driving startup TuSimple to manufacture robotic big rigs and said it’s also investing in the company, which currently has the largest fleet of autonomous semis operating on U.S. highways.
Navistar’s decision builds on an early-stage collaboration with TuSimple, which splits operations between the U.S. and China, that began in 2018 and comes after it evaluated technology from other companies that Persio Lisboa, the truckmaker’s new CEO and president, didn’t identify. The target is to have semis with Level-4 autonomous capability–meaning they can drive without human input–on the market by 2024.
“We see that they are fairly advanced, and we are together advanced in this effort,” Lisboa tells Forbes. “We see the maturity of the organization. I think we see the talent and the level of professionals supporting the development on their side with counterparts on our side.”
Neither he nor TuSimple is saying how much Navistar is investing, though if things progress well the Lisle, Illinois-based company will likely invest more, Lisboa said, without elaborating. TuSimple has raised about $300 million from investors including UPS, Nvidia , Chinese tech firm Sina Corp and Hong Kong’s Composite Capital. It recently opened a Series E investment round that may bring in an additional $250 million.
The production deal is a big step forward and the first of its kind in the highly competitive autonomous trucking space, where TuSimple vies with Alphabet Inc Waymo and startups including Embark, Kodiak, Ike and Pony.ai. More recently, Aurora, led by former Google Self-Driving Car Project chief Chris Urmson, also pivoted into autonomous trucks. While most of the development work for self-driving technology has focused on robotaxi and personal vehicle applications since Google kicked things off a decade ago, trucking, delivery and logistics are increasingly seen as an earlier commercial opportunity by analysts and investors.
“The key thing here is that this is an integrated truck that is factory produced, rolling off the factory line,” says TuSimple President Cheng Lu, speaking from the company’s San Diego headquarters. “Everything of course is automotive grade so in terms of serviceability and reliability, there is an OEM standing behind this truck, which is really important for the end-user.”
Founded by Caltech-trained computer scientist Xiaodi Hou, TuSimple’s chief technology officer and architect of its AI-enabled software, the company has focused exclusively on mastering long-haul trucking for the U.S. market–and hauling cargo from ports in China–because Hou determined it was a faster way to create a revenue-generating business.
Navistar annually sells about 35,000 Class-8 semis in the U.S. and Canada under its International brand and has its own in-house engineering team that’s been working on autonomous tech. It will collaborate closely with TuSimple “to build in the personality of the vehicle,” says Chris Gutierrez, chief engineer of Navistar’s Advanced Driver Assistance System team.
“There’s a little bit more than just software and hardware here,” he says. “It’s one thing to say this truck will stop and turn when it needs to, but how does it interact with other drivers and become a good community driver? How do we teach the truck when it’s appropriate to turn on the turn signal before changing lanes; how fast to make that lane change; and then when does its turn signal go back off at the end of that lane change?”
Those are just a few of the elements to be refined ahead of launching autonomous trucks from the partnership, along with redundant systems for added safety and upgrading the electrical architecture so trucks can easily accommodate the computers, digital cameras, radar and laser lidar sensors that robotic rigs require.
Navistar’s minority equity position in TuSimple is “the first phase of our two-phase approach and development process,” says Lisboa, who moved into the CEO role in June. “We’ll have the development jointly with customers and then we’ll go to a phase two, which is more of the final validation before getting into production in 2024.”
Meanwhile, TuSimple is pushing to finetune its software to be ready to operate without a safety driver at the wheel by late 2021. It’s been generating revenue the past two years with a fleet that now totals 40 trucks from its engineering depot in Tucson, Arizona, though won’t say how much. This month it announced plans to operate an Autonomous Freight Network with partners UPS, U.S. Xpress, Penske Truck Leasing and Berkshire Hathaway backed food service company McLane that initially stretches 1,100 miles from Phoenix to Houston.