CUPERTINO, Calif. — So what is it like when a robot is doing the driving of a fully loaded Class 8 heavy-duty truck?
Really smooth. Really well mannered. And the sense that surrounding traffic is oblivious to the likely future of trucking, at least of this hourlong ride on several northern California freeways on a sunny afternoon in early July.
Freightwaves accepted an invitation from startup autonomous trucking software maker Plus to experience the current state of its Level 4 software retrofit on a 2020 Peterbilt Model 579 sleeper cab.
PACCAR Inc’s. (NASDAQ: PCAR) Kenworth trucks are among 1,000 trucks Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) is having Plus initially retrofit. Based on the total quantity of units Amazon purchases over the life of its agreement with Plus, the e-commerce giant has the rights to buy up to 20% of the company.
Plus is nearing completion of a business combination with Hennessy Capital Investment Corp. V (NASDAQ: HCIC), a special purpose acquisition company. The reverse merger would value Plus at $3.3 billion.
Our ride revealed several distinctives of the PlusDrive system. Yes, it was created to perform almost all driving functions without human involvement. Plus conducted a “driver-out” pilot in 2018 in the Port of Qingdao in China, but the software is repackaged to keep the driver “in the loop” for the foreseeable future.
“Our plan is every year we will have one major release up until the driver [is out]. Every major release will have a number of features,” said Amit Kumar, Plus vice president of engineering. “That’s how we’re doing the evolution of PlusDrive.”
A different approach
The Plus approach follows the Voltaire adage: Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Plus estimates it needs 8 billion miles of real-world driving data before confidently removing the driver from the truck in 2024. That doesn’t mean proven autonomous features must wait that long.
Rival Aurora Innovation expects to remove the driver by the end.of 2023 Another competitor, TuSimple Holdings, plans a driver-out pilot in Arizona in the fourth quarter. TuSimple will equip a Class 8 Navistar tractor for driverless operation in 2024. Others, like Daimler Truck-owned Torc Robotics, are less definitive, pointing to safety as the sole determiner of readiness.
Plus is gathering some data via simulation, but the bulk is coming from paying customers racking up miles while still being able — and encouraged — to manually control the truck when necessary. Some competitors dismiss PlusDrive as a semi-autonomous Level 2 advanced driver assistance system (ADAS).
All major truck manufacturers offer some version of ADAS. Many integrate the Bendix Wingman Fusion system, operated independently of PlusDrive in our truck to provide redundancy in critical functions like braking. PlusDrive is running Level 2, but its machine learning grows on every run.
And there are differences in ADAS capability. Adaptive cruise control (ACC) slows a truck to zero miles per hour and resumes acceleration when traffic begins moving. It is an option on more trucks than ever. But typical ACC cannot perform an autonomous lane change like PlusDrive, Kumar said.
Selling its PlusDrive system as retrofit in the U.S. and installing it as original equipment on First Auto Works trucks in China generates revenue while amassing the evidence needed to field a driverless truck.
From the sleeper portion of the truck, Kumar narrated what was happening along with commentary from safety driver Ruben Cardenas behind the wheel. Though comfy in the passenger seat, I wasn’t always able to easily hear Kumar and Cardenas because of the rumble from the 579’s diesel engine.
Shortly after 4 p.m. local time, we rolled out of a parking lot a few blocks from the Plus headquarters in Cupertino, best known for Apple Park, the headquarters of Apple Inc. (NASDAQ: AAPL). It is less than three miles from Plus, which occupies a building the giant computer company left. Apple signage on buildings is frequent along Stevens Creek Boulevard, where Plus is located.
Our trip started on California State Route 85, known as the West Valley Freeway, which connects southern San Jose and Mountain View, the heart of Silicon Valley. Before the ride ended, we merged onto four other highways, some choked with rush-hour traffic, others relatively clear.
“The idea is this product can be used on any highway. As long as your eyes can see the lane [marking], the system can see the lane and you can engage. What we are trying to do is just see how a typical driver interacts with the system,” Kumar said.
“Initially we don’t support interchanges and our system is going to [say], ‘Please take over.’ It didn’t relinquish control immediately. It requested the driver to please take over [because it was] an unsupported scenario. So even if we’re forced into the interchange, the system will automatically initiate.”
If the driver ignores the request, exterior emergency lights illuminate and the truck slows and stops in its lane in about 30 seconds.
Plus isn’t yet releasing video or photos of the cab, where a 7-inch color monitor is installed in the dash to the right of the driver. It shows visual instructions and displays a target and actual speed.
“Everything we have in the [human-machine interface] is redundant, so we’ll just glance at this real quick,” Cardenas said. “I have my target speed, which is showing me [what] the truck is trying to do. It’s showing me the throttle and braking percentages here, going up in green and down in red for braking.”
The desired speed number is prominent so it can be seen from the driver’s periphery. It is also key to up to 10% fuel savings the PlusDrive system claims is achievable.
A speaker mounted high inside the cab relays audible prompts identical to the visual ones.
The truck steered itself most of the time. Cardenas took over for on- and off-ramps and on surface streets. He spent all but a few minutes in the right lane of the highways we traveled. Per California law, he kept two hands on the wheel.
“The key reason we keep it in the right lane is because that’s where the action is most of the time,” Kumar said. For example, aggressive drivers frequently cut in front of trucks from high-speed lanes to get to off-ramps.
Then Kumar instructed Cardenas: “Take your hands off.”
“I’ll take my hands off,” Cardenas replied.
“And [after 15 seconds] you will see [the system] will come on: ‘hands-off detected,’” Kumar said.
Those warnings annoy some customers on test drives. But fleet managers wouldn’t want it any other way.
And there is an upside. Even with hands on the wheel, the lane-centering system can keep the truck locked in its lane despite stiff winds. Cardenas told of one such instance in the Central Valley where 30 mph crosswinds with gusts to 50 mph had put two trucks on their sides. The PlusDrive-equipped truck had no issue.
Connecting to Route 237 that runs between Mountain View and Milipitas, Cardenas motored along at 55 mph, occupying the little-traveled second lane from the left.
“Hit the brake pedal,” Kumar ordered.
“Disengaged. System is disengaged, but it came into the ‘not ready’ state because we are doing an interchange,” Kumar said. The Bendix lane-departure system picked up the sudden change and announced it through the speaker.
“In terms of safety, there is [redundancy] because the Bendix system is operating and we are also operating, independent of each other,” Kumar said.
Just as the PlusDrive audible alerts use proper manners, so does the truck itself.
“We’re creating a friendly environment around the truck,” Cardenas said. “We’re moving, we’re not stopping. We’re not challenging anybody for the real estate in front of us.”
The truck has sensors arrayed to pick up movement from both sides and behind. Cardenas doesn’t have to worry if he is focused on one traffic issue; PlusDrive will alert him that his attention is needed elsewhere.Some inevitable traffic cut-ins are anticipated.
“It’s going to maintain this distance 35, 40 feet [during stop-and-go driving],” Cardenas said. “And it just creates this whole, ‘Hey, come on in.’ And everybody will. And we can have a line of folks coming up on the [right] side of us. Eventually, somebody is going to get the point and say, ‘I’m running out of lane, I can’t make the 70 feet up there, I’m just going to fall in behind.’
“Very rarely do we come to a zero stop,” he said. “We get into what’s called a ‘creep mode’ and it allows the ebb and flow of the traffic to take off.”
“So,” I asked, “you’re going to be courteous and graceful no matter what?”
“PlusDrive is,” Cardenas replied.
“You’re not?” I asked, half kiddingly.
“Yeah, I’m not driving.”