Two approaches dominate autonomous trucking: Keep working toward a flawless system that replaces the human driver with a robot. Or market what works today and keep striving for driverless operation.

All developers of high-autonomy Level 4 commercial trucks run real-world miles. Many haul freight on selected routes with safety drivers on board in case something goes wrong. TuSimple generated $1.5 million in revenue from supervised runs on its Autonomous Freight Network in Q2.

Repackaging for use today

But Plus, which expects to go public via merger with special purpose acquisition company Hennessy Capital V (NASDAQ: HCIC) before the end of the year, repackaged its Level 4 system to run in the background while advanced driver assistance system (ADAS) features make driving easier. Plus has retrofitted the first few of 1,000 Amazon trucks with its Plus Drive system.  

“Major fleets realize that to get to skilled driverless operation, it’s going to take years if not longer,” Plus co-founder and CEO Davd Liu told FreightWaves in a July interview at Plus headquarters in Cupertino, California. “So, they ask us, ‘Can you actually use that L4 technology and put it on our trucks and just treat drivers today as your safety driver?’”

Plus responded with a resounding yes. 

“It’s autonomous driving L4 technology,” Liu said. “We’re just applying it to a commercial scenario that makes sense today. Do we call it L4? Do we call it supervised L4? Do we call it L3? Do we call it L2-plus. We don’t care. In fact, Amazon doesn’t want to call it Level-X at all because there is some connotation related to L4.

“When people hear about it, they think ‘driver out.’ They think of losing jobs. [Amazon doesn’t] want to be associated with removing jobs. What they’re doing is using the technology to make their drivers today happier.”

“Major fleets realize that to get to skilled driverless operation, it’s going to take years if not longer. So, they ask us, ‘Can you actually use that L4 technology and put it on our trucks and just treat drivers today as your safety driver?’”

David Liu, co-founder and CEO, Plus

Reducing driver stress

Meeting a fleet’s need to attract and retain drivers with automated steering, braking and redundant safety features drains much of the stress from typical driving. And most younger drivers never learned to drive a manual transmission with up to 18 gears. Automatic transmissions and cruise control are all they have known.

“The job is a lot easier. It’s not labor-intensive,” Liu said. “Especially for some of the situations like stop-and-go driving.”

ADAS features like lane departure warning, lane centering and automatic braking are building blocks of fully autonomous driving. Daimler Trucks North America showed its Detroit Assurance 5.0 system 2 ½ years ago and began offering it as an option in 2020. The Wingman Fusion system from Bendix offers many of the same features.

Detroit Assurance 5.0 is at its core a crash avoidance system. It cannot drive on its own. Daimler has dual pursuits for Level 4 autonomy: internally through its Torc Robotics subsidiary and externally through Waymo Via’s fifth-generation Waymo Driver software.

Schools of thought

Liu said there are two schools of thought on Level 4 autonomy.

“One is [focusing on] leading-edge performance. Don’t even think about cost. Let’s just make the best we can, top of the line,” he said.

That means dozens of sensors costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, high-definition maps plotting to the square centimeter of roadways. And more.

“The other school of thought is more of a cost-and-performance” approach, he said. “You need to look at both things in tandem.

“We think you should push the envelope to see where technology could get you. But it’s also important to think about how [to] scalably deploy your technology. And scale is one of the biggest drivers for innovation. If you look at the PC industry, the semiconductor industry, scale always drives innovation.”

Lidar as an example

Light detection and ranging (lidar) works on the principle of radar but uses light from a laser. It is critical to how an autonomous truck sees what is happening around and in front of it.

“If you look at lidar, I believe the winner eventually will be the guys who can drive the cost fastest,” Liu said. “The question is who can make thousands or tens of thousands at an affordable price level?”

Angus Pacala, CEO of lidar maker Ouster, answered that question for Plus.

“It was actually the long-term reliability and durability and total cost of ownership of the lidar sensors they were looking at because they were looking to move into meaningful production scale deployments,” Pacala told FreightWaves. 

Angus Pacala, CEO of lidar maker Ouster, met Plus’ need for a scalable and cost-effective system. (Photo: Ouster)

“Plus took their L4 first approach [and] they found a way to do it that actually makes financial sense and can convince a customer like Amazon.”

While regulations are being worked out to govern autonomous driving, both long-term and short-term approaches will continue.

“You can continue the science project, if you will, or you can continue the science project and apply some of what you know you can do safely today,” Marc Scribner, senior transportation policy analyst for the libertarian think tank Reason Foundation, told FreightWaves. “They’re selling systems because you can use them now. You don’t have to wait until you have a perfect Level 4 system.”

Related articles:

Plus completes 20-mile driverless demo on public roads in China

Exclusive first ride: Plus autonomous truck is a gentle giant on the highway

Amazon could acquire 20% of Plus for buying $150M of autonomous systems

Click for more FreightWaves articles by Alan Adler.