Sun, Sep 10, 2017 - Page 15 News List

Chinese start-up racing US rivals in driverless rigs

By Yan Zhang  /  Bloomberg

A Chinese start-up with powerful backing plans to test a fleet of self-driving trucks in Arizona and Shanghai next year, competing with Uber Technologies Inc and Alphabet Inc’s Waymo in transforming the way goods are delivered.

Haulage is ripe for disruption by automation because the industry faces a growing shortage of drivers and transporting cargo between fixed points is less complicated than city driving, said Chen Mo (陳默), 33, cofounder and chief executive officer of Beijing-based Tusimple (圖森未來科技), which is backed by Sina Corp (新浪), operator of China’s biggest microblogging site.

Self-driving trucks could cut logistics costs by 40 percent in the US and 25 percent in China, as they can run longer than human-piloted rigs without rest and save at least 10 percent on fuel, Chen said.

They could also improve safety, especially in China, where trucks kill about 25,000 people a year, according to the Chinese Ministry of Public Security.

“It’s natural for us to start the business simultaneously as both countries feature a trucker shortage and huge cargo transportation demand,” Chen said in an interview in his office in Beijing. “China’s trucking industry is costly, inefficient and dangerous” and Tusimple’s technology “can reduce the casualty rate to 25 percent of the current level.”

The start-up plans to order 60 to 100 specially retrofitted trucks for the tests from a US truckmaker and China’s Shaanxi Heavy Duty Motor Co (陝西重型汽車). The vehicles are to have 10 cameras, three radars and a control system to analyze traffic conditions.

The plan, regulations permitting, is to introduce commercial services in 2019, initially on two routes: A 193km highway stretch between Tucson and Phoenix in Arizona, and a 32km leg between a Shanghai port and warehouse, after completing 4.8 million kilometers of road tests in a year.

Instead of selling the automation technology to logistics firms or fleet owners, Tusimple plans to get into the haulage business.

The industry in China is more fragmented than in the US, with large numbers of truck owners who lack proper training or insurance, Chen said.

Tusimple would be ahead of Uber and Waymo to start road tests in China, where nine out of 10 of the nation’s 30 million truckers are individuals subcontracted by logistics companies.

China hauled 30.5 billion tonnes of cargo last year, compared with 9.4 billion tonnes in the US.

Nearly 30 percent of Chinese truckers have driver fatigue that can lead to slower reaction and inability to keep their eyes open during the early morning and afternoon, according to G7 Networks, a Beijing-based vehicle connectivity technology company that tracks data with equipment on commercial vehicles.

Chinese drivers earn an average 300,000 yuan (US$46,000) for running 100,000km per year and younger drivers are opting for jobs like couriers in cities that pay more, the G7 study said.

Tusimple has no plans to develop driverless passenger cars as intracity driving is much more complex than highway piloting and there is less of a discernible return in terms of business costs in removing the human driver from a private-hire car, Chen said.

Those economics have attracted others.

Tesla Inc met with California and Nevada agencies about testing an autonomous semi-truck after chief executive officer Elon Musk tweeted his ambition to add driverless trucks to the line-up.

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