Autonomous driving

Chinese self-driving truck start-up to roll out unmanned port logistics services in second half of 2018

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 April, 2018, 7:30am
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 April, 2018, 8:24am

TuSimple, a Chinese self-driving truck start-up backed by graphic chip giant Nvidia, said it is close to launching unmanned port logistics services, bringing the autonomous technology a step closer to commercialisation.

The company is in talks with about 10 ports in China with the goal of rolling out the service in the second half of the year, said Hao Jiannan, co-founder and chief operating executive of the Beijing and San Diego-based firm.  

“Autonomous logistics solutions will be more cost efficient for ports,” Hao said at the launch event in Beijing on Tuesday. “It represents the trend to follow in the future.”

A video clip screened at the event showed autonomous trucks, powered by TuSimple’s technology, loading and unloading containers at a port in China with the help of automatic loading cranes. China is home to Yangshan Port, one of the world’s busiest container terminals.

TuSimple, which counts US chip maker Nvidia as an investor, is among dozens of Chinese autonomous truck start-ups that have launched over the past two years. The use of autonomous driving in logistics operations is seen as safer because the vehicles drive in restricted areas where there are fewer, if any, pedestrians, unlike city driving where cars coexist with humans. 

“We are preparing for a full commercialisation by 2020,” said Xue Jiancong, assistant president of TuSimple, adding that the company will continue its research in cooperation with major truck makers in China and the US for autonomous truck production.

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TuSimple’s so-called level four autonomous truck prototypes, which can self drive in most conditions without human intervention, were refitted using existing vehicles manufactured by Shannxi Automobile Group.  

A global race to achieve commercialisation of autonomous trucks is on, with Chinese start-ups like TuSimple and TABU, founded by the former R&D head of ride hailing firm Didi Chuxing, competing with US tech giants like Uber Technologies, Google’s Waymo and Tesla’s Semi, which have collectively invested billions to ensure a stake in the future of transport technology. 

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However, unlike the point to point highway driving tests in the US, unmanned port logistics services remain in the development stage in China due to “regulatory challenges”, said Hao, who added that he believes the fatal crash of an Uber autonomous car in Arizona earlier last month would not have a “negative impact” on US regulations.

“Although China started slowly [on the regulatory front], it is catching up fast given the recent relaxation of road tests for self-driving cars,” said Hao. “We are quite optimistic.”

More than 24 states in the US have introduced legislation to allow for autonomous driving, whereas Beijing and Shanghai are so far the only two Chinese cities that have given the official green light for open road tests of self-driving vehicles.

In a press conference in February, Chinese transport minister Li Xiaopeng vowed to approve more test areas and to work on industry guidelines for self-driving vehicles. Autonomous driving is increasingly seen as an amalgamation of the latest technologies, including 5G, manufacturing and new energy, said Li, adding that research was also under way on self-piloting ships and autonomous rail transit.

In a separate development on Tuesday, NIO Capital, a private equity fund founded by Chinese electric car start-up NIO, said it will develop autonomous electric trucks with the country’s internet of things firm G7 and logistics provider GLP.