The bigger the vehicle, the bigger the potential. That’s the thinking behind PlusAI and its focus on commercial trucking for its autonomous technology.
PlusAI, a Cupertino, Calif., startup, estimates there’s a $1 trillion market for its self-driving software and sensors in the trucking sector in the U.S. and China. The company believes the software and component market for the robotic truck will ultimately be more significant than that for robo-taxis or autonomous agriculture vehicles.
“Our focus is on building hub-to-hub autonomous Class 8 vehicles to enable autonomous commercial transportation fleets,” said Shawn Kerrigan, PlusAI’s chief operating officer.
Hub-to-hub trucking is a $550 billion market in the U.S., about ten times the size of the taxi market here, which means more opportunity for autonomous vehicle sales, Kerrigan told Trucks.com.
China represents another $500 million market, Kerrigan said. That’s why PlusAI has offices in Silicon Valley, Beijing and near Shanghai.
The startup faces stiff competition, all wanting a slice of the same market. Nearly every major truck manufacturer, including Daimler Trucks, the Traton truck and bus subsidiary of Volkswagen and Volvo Trucks also are developing self-driving vehicles. They are relying on their own research and development teams and key suppliers.
And then there are a host of startups that include TuSimple, Starsky Robotics and Peloton Technology.
PlusAI is the brainchild of Stanford University graduates David Liu and Hao Zheng. They founded the company in 2016, building its first prototype that same year. It became the first self-driving trucking company with a California Autonomous Vehicle Testing License in 2017. One of its test vehicles drove itself 1,140 miles between San Francisco and Las Vegas in 2018.
At CES 2019, PlusAI demonstrated its self-driving technology in one of Navistar’s International LT Series tractors. PlusAI is currently testing dozens of trucks in the U.S. and China.
Semi-trucks make sense as a platform for autonomous driving as the technology develops, Kerrigan said. That’s because of the inherent advantages of larger vehicles. PlusAI’s sensors are designed to identify and track all other vehicles up to a mile ahead and about 800 feet behind the AV. PlusAI uses cameras, LIDAR and radar sensors.
The architecture of a truck allows the company to place the sensors high. That helps the truck to see past nearby vehicles. Developing autonomous trucks that work on the highway and surface roads near hub distribution centers also limits exposure to pedestrians.
A truck also doesn’t have the space constraint of a passenger car when figuring out where to place sensors.
“The highway driving problem is more structured so that you can get to market faster,” Kerrigan said.
PlusAI is targeting 2023 for its first commercial product.
The company is working with a variety of partners and suppliers as it moves toward commercialization.
It partners include Paccar, the owner of the Peterbilt and Kenworth truck brands, and Navistar’s International truck division. It’s working with the Full Truck Alliance, nicknamed the “Uber for trucks,” in China. And PlusAI recently announced a joint venture with FAW, one of the largest truck builders in China, to make vehicles together.
“To successfully get this technology to market, it’s not just when our AI is ready,” Kerrigan said,
Laws regarding self-driving vehicles need to be ironed out, he said. Suppliers have to produce the components. Automakers need to have vehicle platforms that can deliver enough power to the AI hardware. And fleet operators need to be ready to integrate these types of vehicles into their operations.