Watermelons are the latest proof point for autonomous trucking. TuSimple’s driver-monitored Level 4 high autonomy-equipped trucks covered 900 miles from Nogales, Arizona, to Oklahoma City, delivering the fruit in just over 14 hours — 42% faster than a typical run.

The efficiency gains from the self-driving truck software startup’s experiment with Los Angeles-based Giumarra Cos. could eventually alter the way produce is picked, packed and shipped to local groceries.

“Speed to market for watermelons isn’t as important because they’re a sturdier fruit and they have a longer shelf life,” Kristina Lorusso, Giumarra business development director, told FreightWaves. “Something like stone fruit or berries where we’re shaving off that time, [that would be] a very exciting development.”

Last summer, Giumarra tested a pilot-monitored autonomous plane to move peaches from Reedley in California’s Central Valley to Los Angeles: a two-hour trip instead of two days.

“If we want a 24-hour delivery, we need to work with our growers and let them know we want [the fruit] to be tree-ripe,” Lorusso said. “They have to pick and pack and get it ready for shipment in a different way than they would for something they know is going to be a very long-haul drive.”

Sold on autonomous technology

Giumarra, which has an international network of growers, distributors and producers, is sold on autonomous technology. It plans three more watermelon runs in TuSimple trucks over the next three weeks following the first on May 3. Then it will decide if other, more delicate fruits, should be added.

A human driver handled the beginning of the watermelons’ journey and the final miles of the first  trip. TuSimple’s robot Class 8 truck, with a safety driver on board, covered the four states in between. A drop-and-hook of the trailer kept the run within hours-of-service regulations.

“The autonomous trucks are going to be very good for us on the West Coast to go from place to place,” Lorusso said. “In the Midwest, the ability to bring tree-ripened fruit on a plane within a couple of hours, it’s going to be game-changing.”

Getting an accurate weight for shipments on autonomous trucks is important because it is harder to get them to turn around to offload excess weight, like too many heavy watermelons. (Photo: TuSimple)

One lesson from the watermelon run was to assure accurate weight. Sixty bins of watermelons is a typical load. But larger and heavier specimens can require leaving some off.

“An autonomous truck isn’t going to be as easily able to just turn around and get a bin or two taken off the load,” Lorusso said.

Making a point

For TuSimple (NYSE:TSP), the first autonomous trucking software developer to be publicly traded, the watermelon deliveries prove a bigger point.

“One of the largest obstacles for the adoption and proliferation of autonomous trucks is going to be how the rest of society feels about it,” Jim Mullen, TuSimple chief administrative officer, told FreightWaves. “We think these types of examples will be extremely helpful in having society come around.”

TuSimple has 50 Level 4-equipped trucks hauling freight in the American Southwest. It is continuing to map new routes to expand its Autonomous Freight Network that generated $944,000 of revenue in Q1. TuSimple added 1,200 miles of newly mapped lanes in the first quarter, bringing its total to 5,000 miles.

“Our pace of mapping and how scalable this system is is quite robust,” TuSimple CEO Cheng Lu said on the company’s May 10 call with analysts. “And of course, we’re continuingly making progress there.”

Still, Giumarra is limited by where TuSimple can move autonomously. 

“They are working on that and as those lanes open up, we will hopefully be right along with them with our retail partners,” Lorusso said.

Giumarra has its own trucking and logistics unit and contracts drivers to move 100,000 shipments annually. Lorusso said she sees no reason why the company would not add autonomous trucks to its fleet when they become available. 

TuSimple has 6,775 nonbinding reservations for a Class 8 International truck with embedded Level 4 software that Navistar (NYSE: NAV) will produce in 2024.

“We are keeping our eye on what is coming,” she said. “It is definitely the future, and we are working very closely with all of our tech partners to sort out what works and what is viable. If the technology is right and everything seems to be moving along the way it should be, I can’t see why we wouldn’t want to get involved.”

A truckload of watermelons is 60 bins unless some examples are too big and heavy, then a couple bins might be left behind. (Photo: TuSimple)

Perfecting produce

Produce is an ideal vertical to harvest the benefits of autonomous trucking, said Mullen, a former acting director of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration who earlier spent more than a decade as an executive with Werner Enterprises (NASDAQ: WERN).

“I have a lot of friends in the produce industry and reliable capacity is an issue they always discuss,” Mullen said. Avoiding the inconsistency of spot market pricing “is going to be very valuable for that industry.”

Lorusso agrees.

“We’re definitely working hard to revolutionize the supply chain,” she said. “How are we going to get fresher, better-tasting, really ripe and ready-to-eat fruit to consumers who wouldn’t necessarily have that?”

Giumarra Cos. moves 100,000 loads of produce every year, including its first load using TuSimple’s autonomous trucking software. (Photo: TuSimple)

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Click for more FreightWaves articles by Alan Adler.