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China's TuSimple taps Tucson as test site for self-driving trucks

A nondescript warehouse building on a dead-end road in an industrial park on Tucson's West Side is set to be a starting line for what many industry experts see as the future of transportation: self-driving vehicles.

A Chinese company with more than $20 million in recent backing will bring as many as 100 engineering jobs to Tucson as it develops driverless commercial trucks. Beijing-based TuSimple, which tested a vehicle in Arizona in June, announced Monday that it's setting up shop here, working to "develop the world's first autonomous truck fleet."

The company chose Tucson because of Arizona's regulations allowing for the testing of autonomous vehicles, it's relatively low real estate costs, a skilled workforce and because of serendipity: the Chinese characters for the company's name are the exactly the same as for the name of our city, co-founder and CTO Xiaodi Hou said Monday

TucsonSentinel.com broke the news of the company's plans last week.

TuSimple and local officials offered a few more details during a ribbon-cutting event Monday.

The company will initially employ a group of 10-30 engineers here who will rotate between Tucson and TuSimple's San Diego office, Hou said. TuSimple plans to ramp up development of its trucks here, with a workforce of about 100 projected within five years — 80 of them engineering jobs. The company plans to invest about $15 million in capital expenditures in its local operation.

The company plans to have a truck being tested fulltime on Arizona highways within months, with a human driver ready to take the wheel at any point, Hou said. Within five years, after "millions of miles of testing," TuSimple should have a fleet of 10-25 or more trucks in operation, running between warehouses in Arizona along predetermined routes without any human drivers, he said.

"We want to show that we have millions and millions of test miles driven without any incidents" before applying for permission to operate unattended semi-trucks, Hou said.

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"Arizona is super open-minded about autonomous driving," he said.

Rather than focusing on the private market of personal vehicles like Tesla and Google are with their autonomous car programs, TuSimple — founded in 2015 — is working to develop an artificially intelligent truck that can transport freight. Company engineers are developing algorithms and equipment, in partnership with a large Chinese truck manufacturer that the company hasn't identified.

TuSimple representatives, local officials and economic development agencies wouldn't go on there record before the public announcement scheduled for Monday afternoon, but TucsonSentinel.com confirmed Friday that the Chinese company will operate in Tucson.

Public records filed with state and local agencies showed that TuSimple will have a site here. The company has leased 6,800 square feet of warehouse/office space near Interstate 10 and Grant Road.

The company also has research and development centers in Beijing and San Diego, and has about current 100 employees. Hou said TuSimple tested its self-driving platform with a run between San Diego and Southern Arizona in June. The company expects to operate tests between Tucson and Phoenix early next year.

"Platooning" of groups of autonomous trucks could increase safety and efficiency, Hou said.

The company has projected $81.7 million in local economic impact over five years, but didn't offer any details on how that figure was derived. Officials said that no special incentives were offered to the company by the city, county or Arizona Commerce Authority. Workforce training support might be available at some point from Pima County, officials said.

From Tech Crunch:

The tech used by TuSimple includes extensive HD mapping of the routes driven, as well as three millimeter-wave radar units, in addition to the camera data from eight cameras and the resulting computer vision processing it does. TuSimple says that it can achieve “centimeter-level” accuracy for truck positioning, even when driving inside a tunnel, and its in-house decision-making machine intelligence makes for safe route navigation.

The company’s also developing a car identification tool using its image recognition software. They note that once available, it’ll be able to identify car make and model with 97 percent accuracy from photos of vehicles uploaded to its site. This is an interesting additional use of its image processing chops, and could present additional revenue opportunities once its self-driving trucks are on roads capturing images of other vehicles on the road while en route.

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The company said that "TuSimple team members come from California Institute of Technology, Carnegie Mellon University, the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Nanyang Technological University, Tsinghua University, Peking University and Shanghai Jiaotong University. 60 percent of its employees have a Ph.D. degree."

Mayor Jonathan Rothschild said he was "very pleased to welcome TuSimple to Tucson" at Monday's ribbon-cutting event. "I'm happy the city was able to help facilitate connections with the University of Arizona. Our workforce, specifically our engineering workforce, weighed in our favor in their decision to come here and, in fact, is one of our underreported strengths as a community."

"High-wage technology, engineering and manufacturing jobs like these are a top focus of Pima County's economic development efforts and the steady pace of these announcements over the past year shows our economy is growing," said Sharon Bronson, chair of the Pima County Board of Supervisors.

"We were tenacious in our efforts to win this 21st-century, high-tech company," said Joe Snell, president of Sun Corridor. "Our proximity to its research facility in California, our top notch workforce and strong infrastructure for autonomous technology all contributed to push Tucson to the top."

As Tucson grows as a logistics center, 'we can see goods being offloaded in Nogales, coming up from the port of Guaymas, and those products being delivered to Tucson and beyond by delivery trucks without a driver," Snell said.

Dave Hutchens, CEO of Unisource and Tucson Electric Power, and the chair of Sun Corridor's board, joined other speakers in noting the importance of the foreign investment that TuSimple will bring to Tucson's economy.

The company had outlined its broader plans to the industry press, with Xiaodi Hou telling Technology Review last year that intercity freight will be a huge market in China:

TuSimple is collecting data aboard a number of manually driven trucks. The company aims to demonstrate the technology in the first quarter of next year, and to have a commercial demonstration in 2018.

The approach TuSimple is focused on is particularly cost-effective. It relies heavily on computer vision and algorithms that can understand a scene in detail, going beyond identifying vehicles to predicting what actions they may take. “Everything is done in computer vision with deep learning,” Hou says, referring to a popular kind of machine learning that involves feeding large amounts of training data into a big neural network.

Hou, who completed a PhD in computation and neural systems at Caltech under Christof Koch, a renowned neuroscientist now at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, has been working on advanced computer vision for many years.

Across China, around 7.2 million trucks and 16 million drivers are responsible for intercity transportation of goods, according to figures provided by TuSimple. This industry is worth more than $300 billion, and drivers account for around 40 percent of the costs incurred by truck companies. Some long-distance trips across China require two or even three drivers to complete. Autonomy would allow a single driver to sleep during long highway stretches.

"The truck freight industry in the U.S. is even bigger, valued at around $700 billion," Technology Review reported.

Among TuSimple's backers is graphics card giant Nvidia, which announced this week that it had joined in a $20 million investment round with Sina, the company behind Chinese behemoth Weibo.

TuSimple is one of Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Research Center corporate internship partners, and has attracted graduates from top universities around the world.

Sun Corridor noted that "Arizona is one of a handful of states that has adopted legislation or signed executive orders supporting the testing and development for the autonomous vehicle industry. Arizona created the Self-Driving Vehicle Oversight Committee through executive order and its members meet with the Arizona Department of Transportation to support autonomous vehicle research and development efforts."

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Dylan Smith/TucsonSentinel.com

Mayor Jonathan Rothschild cuts a ribbon at an event announcing TuSimple's plans in Tucson, along with company co-founder Xiaodi Hou, County Supervisor Sharon Bronson, TEP's Dave Hutchen and, at left, Joe Snell of Sun Corridor.

Youtube Video

TuSimple's sensor tech

The company's summary of its technology for self-driving trucks:

TuSimple’s autonomous driving platform uses an array of cameras to scan the surrounding environment. With trucks, the sensors must be even more powerful due to the longer stopping times required. Our platform’s camera and millimeter-wave radar array allows for sensing distances of up to 200 meters from the vehicle, compared to the standard 80 meters using LiDAR arrays. This allows our system to safely observe its surroundings when driving heavy freight trucks.

TuSimple’s original deep learning detection algorithms enable the cameras to perceive the surroundings just like the human eye. It can detect and track objects within your field of vision in real time, and make pixel-level interpretations of the visible scene. With original high-precision visual positioning and multi-sensor integration technology, a truck can achieve a centimeter-level of positioning accuracy – even in a tunnel. TuSimple’s self-developed artificial intelligence decision-making system can even guide vehicles along a safe and fuel-efficient route based on terrain and real road conditions.

— TuSimple