A Chinese startup company developing self-driving technology for commercial trucking has opened a facility in Tucson for research and testing — including a planned Tucson-Phoenix run with an autonomous truck.
Beijing-based TuSimple plans to spend millions of dollars and hire as many as 100 employees in the next five years, with the aim of perfecting intelligent driving systems and eventually running fleets of autonomous trucks.
TuSimple has leased 6,865 square feet of warehouse and office space at 2551 N. Dragoon Street, near West Grant Road and Interstate 10, to engineer and test its technology.
The company, which planned a ribbon-cutting on Monday, Aug. 21 with local officials, also has research facilities in Beijing and San Diego, California.
Xiaodi Hou, TuSimple’s co-founder and chief technology officer, said the combination of Tucson’s standing as a center of logistics and its friendly state policies toward autonomous vehicle technology lured the company to Tucson.
“Arizona is super open-minded about autonomous driving, which I believe will make the entire state a pioneer of autonomous driving and you’ll see the effect in the next 10 years,” Hou said.
Arizona is one of a handful of states that has adopted legislation or policies supporting the testing and development for the autonomous vehicle industry.
Arizona created the Self-Driving Vehicle Oversight Committee through an executive order by Gov. Doug Ducey in 2015, and its members meet with the Arizona Department of Transportation to support autonomous vehicle research and development efforts.
TuSimple’s technology employs multiple cameras and radar sensors with the company’s proprietary software and GPS and other data to allow trucks to “see” the road in real time like the human eye. The system uses artificial intelligence to make decisions to avoid obstacles and navigate safely.
Hou said the company made a successful 200-mile test run from San Diego to Yuma in July and plans to continue testing in Arizona to perfect the system, with a Tucson-Phoenix trip planned for the first quarter of 2018.
“In the U.S., Tucson will be our first station and I think will be the primary site for road testing in the next few years,” Hou said.
TuSimple isn’t alone in its quest to perfect a self-driving truck.
Diesel truckmaker Freightliner has tested an autonomous truck wth a safety driver and Uber delivered a truckload of beer in 2016 on a 120-mile route in Colorado, using technology from a startup partner it later acquired.
Backers say autonomous trucking systems could make fleets more efficient and save lives by avoiding human error and safety issues like drivers falling asleep at the wheel.
Hou said the company has talked with truck manufacturers and has had initial talks with one leading truck maker, but the company eventually wants to develop and operate autonomous trucking fleets.
“We’re not trying develop one black box that can perform Level 4 (driverless) autonomous driving, but we’re thinking about building an autonomous fleet of trucks,” he said. “You can think of us more as an operations company, instead of a software company.”
TuSimple recently raised $20 million in capital investments from a group led by Chinese telecom giant Sina Corp. and including Silicon Valley-based computer graphics Nvidia, which provided powerful graphical processing units for TuSimple's prototype systems.
The local effort to recruit TuSimple was led by Sun Corridor Inc., the area’s economic-development agency, who worked with local and state officials provided TuSimple executives with workforce, real-estate, incentive and demographic information to show the region’s ability to support the company’s expansion.
TuSimple is expected to invest $15 million in capital expenditures, with the expected new jobs bringing its potential economic impact to $81.7 million over five years, Sun Corridor said.
Joe Snell, president and CEO of Sun Corridor, said local officials were “tenacious” in its pursuit of TuSimple.
“Our proximity to their research facility in California, our top notch workforce and strong infrastructure for autonomous technology all contributed to push Tucson to the top,” Snell said in prepared remarks.
Besides Sun Corridor, the city of Tucson and Pima County, the Arizona Commerce Authority, the University of Arizona, Tucson Electric Power, Alpha Commercial Real Estate Service, and CBRE partnered to recruit TuSimple to Tucson.