Driverless Semi Reaches Milestone in Test, Startup Plus Says

Driverless Semi Reaches Milestone in Test, Startup Plus Says

A Silicon Valley startup says the global race to develop fully autonomous trucks reached a milestone when a semi used its technology to navigate traffic on a Chinese highway with no driver, even as a safety backup.

The startup, called Plus, said the trial took place on the newly built Wufengshan highway in the Yangtze delta in late June. No human safety drivers were present in the truck and no remote controller was used. Other self-driving truck startups have reached a similar degree of automation -- called Level 4, meaning a vehicle can drive itself under certain conditions -- but those tests still included drivers or other human oversight.

“The demo shows the safety, maturity, and functionality of our technology,” which still is being developed toward eventual commercial use, Shawn Kerrigan, chief operating officer and co-founder of Plus, said in a statement Thursday.

Plus is among a handful of startups trying to upend long-haul trucking with driverless technology -- a prospect with important economic ramifications at time when a shortage of truckers in the U.S. is roiling supply chains. Back in May, Plus announced plans to merge with special purpose acquisition company Hennessy Capital Investment Corp. V, becoming one of several peers to seek a public listing via a blank-check firm. 

For now, the Cupertino, California-based company said it plans to use the Level 4 technology from the Chinese test in a commercial “driver-in” product for semi trucks called PlusDrive and hopes to start testing a fully driverless truck “in a dedicated environment in 2022.” The demonstration was conducted with a special permit on the new highway, Plus said, adding it was the first company to get such permission from China.

There are currently six levels of self-driving technology as identified by the Society for Automotive Engineering, ranging from full manual control (Level Zero) to total automation (Level 5). 

Other autonomous-technology firms making progress with semis include:

  • TuSimple, a startup partnered with Navistar, now part of Volkswagen’s Traton SE, has developed a Level 4 semi but hasn’t yet removed a driver from the cab for tests on public roads. It recently announced plans to do so without giving a date.
  • Waymo, Alphabet Inc.’s subsidiary, has an autonomous trucking arm that’s partnered with both Daimler AG and J.B. Hunt Transportation Services Inc. to produce Level 4 trucks. These trucks still require human oversight from the cab.
  • Kodiak Robotics, another California-based self-driving startup, has yet to add driver-out capabilities to its Level 4 technology.
  • Embark, Aurora and Ike are also all working toward driverless technologies.
  • Sweden’s Einride AB eliminated the driver cab from its vehicle design entirely, but its trucks are still controlled remotely.

When the merger with Hennessy is complete, the combined company is expected to trade on the New York Stock Exchange under the ticker PLAV. The combined company is set to have a market value of about $3.3 billion, Plus said in a May statement. 

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.