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China's TuSimple expands self-driving truck development in Tucson

You read it here first: A Chinese company is making inroads in the self-driving truck field with its growing operations in Tucson. Gov. Doug Ducey is set to tout TuSimple in a press conference Wednesday; the company has invested in a larger Southeast Side facility and is fielding applications for a number of tech jobs.

TuSimple announced last August that it was moving into a nondescript warehouse near Grant Road and Interstate 10. But in January, the firm began refitting a much larger manufacturing building near Rita Ranch. TuSimple has made extensive improvements to the interior of a 50,000-square-foot industrial structure on 3.6 acres on East Vail Road.

Company representatives did not respond to requests for comment when TucsonSentinel.com first published this story, but TuSimple has advertised that it is hiring electrical and sensor engineers and other staff in Tucson.

The company announced Wednesday afternoon that it is planning to "create 500 new jobs."

The company, which had more than $70 million in backing last year, had announced last August that it would bring as many as 100 engineering jobs to Tucson as it develops driverless commercial trucks.

Wednesday, company reps said that TuSimple would be operating the "world's largest autonomous truck fleet" by 2019, with 200 trucks in the United States and 500 worldwide.

Rather than focusing on the private market of personal vehicles like Tesla and Google are with their autonomous car programs, TuSimple is working to develop an artificially intelligent truck that can transport freight. Company engineers are developing algorithms and equipment, and have run tests in Arizona — including a run between San Diego and Southern Arizona last June.

TuSimple "recently began generating revenue hauling freight for commercial carriers in the state," the company said in a news release Wednesday.

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TuSimple reps, government officials and economic development agencies wouldn't go on the record before the public announcement scheduled for Wednesday, but TucsonSentinel.com confirmed with multiple sources that an "economic development announcement" scheduled by Ducey about an "artificial intelligence company (that) will announce new jobs being created in Southern Arizona" is about TuSimple.

Public records filed with local agencies show that TuSimple has undertaken extensive tenant improvements at the new site, between South Rita and South Houghton roads.

The company also has research and development centers in Beijing and San Diego.

"Arizona has actively supported the research and development of autonomous vehicles, and we are pleased to be expanding our footprint in the state," said Xiaodi Hou, CTO and co-founder of TuSimple. "We thank Gov. Ducey and our community partners for their generous support."

Ducey said that TuSimple's growth in Tucson is a "testament to the environment we've created here: one that is business-friendly, where innovators do what they do best: innovate."

The company's expansion reflects "the strength of the region's technology sector momentum and the growing role this region will play in designing and manufacturing components for autonomous-driving systems," said Pima County Supervisor Sharon Bronson, in the release from the Arizona Commerce Authority. "It also adds to our regional reputation as an important center for logistics. TuSimple pays well above the regional median wage, adding significantly to the region's highly-educated, high-paid workforce, which is exactly the type of workforce we're working to expand in the county."

"Tucson welcomes the 500 new jobs TuSimple is bringing to the community," said Mayor Jonathan Rothschild. "New technologies continue to evolve and it's important that Tucson be a city that can attract and retain the jobs of the future."

"Under Gov. Ducey's leadership, Arizona's focused on disruptive technology trends, and autonomous driving is undoubtedly one of those trends," said Sandra Watson, president of the Commerce Authority. "It's exciting to have a forward-thinking company developing cutting-edge technology here in our state: the best place to launch, test and scale new ideas."

"Just a year ago, TuSimple chose Tucson for a new testing location, adding 100 new high-wage jobs," said Joe Snell, president of economic development agency Sun Corridor. "Since then, they have moved to larger facilities and now are dramatically expanding their workforce. This is a great testament to the confidence in our region and the ability of innovative businesses to operate on a large scale in Tucson and Southern Arizona."

From Tech Crunch:

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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.

The company said last year 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."

The company has outlined its broader plans to the industry press, with CTO Xiaodi Hou telling Technology Review in 2016 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.

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TuSimple's system includes nine video cameras and three sets of millimeter-wave radars, the company said.

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