Autonomous trucking startup TuSimple is joining forces with Navistar International Corp. (NYSE:NAV), a producer of commercial trucks, proprietary diesel engines, and school and commercial buses, to develop self-driving semi-trucks.
The partnership, announced Wednesday, builds on a two-year relationship between the companies and marks a milestone for TuSimple, establishing the startup as a preferred supplier of autonomous trucking technology.
"TuSimple and Navistar began joint development of pre-production units in 2018 and now we are kicking-off a full go-to-market production program," said Cheng Lu, president of TuSimple, in a press release. "With the combined expertise of Navistar and TuSimple, we have a clear path to commercialize self-driving Class 8 trucks at scale."
In addition to the partnership, Navistar has taken a minority stake in TuSimple.
The development agreement comes two weeks after TuSimple announced new partnerships with transportation providers U.S. Xpress and Penske Truck Leasing, and Berkshire Hathaway-owned grocery and food-service distributor McLane.
The company is opening a new shipping terminal in Dallas this fall and recently added new routes in Texas as part of a broader effort to build a nationwide autonomous trucking transportation network.
Building a scalable autonomous semi-truck
TuSimple's role in the development of a self-driving ecosystem is to supply customers with its Virtual Driver technology, said Lu, who in a June interview with FreightWaves compared development of the company's autonomous truck and the transportation network to a 5G cellular network.
"We are building with Tier One suppliers and OEMs a new 5G phone," he said.
With the Navistar program, the partners are targeting an integrated engineering solution that will be ready for mass production using the OEM's vehicle manufacturing capabilities. Work on the trucks will start by 2024, according to the press statement.
TuSimple isn't the only startup to develop a relationship with a truck maker. Autonomous trucking outfit Plus.ai last fall entered a joint venture with FAW Jiefang, China's largest truck manufacturer, to develop self-driving big rigs for the world's most populous country.
The partnership has also launched its first product, the FAW J7 Level Two truck, with plans to bring a full Level Four heavy-duty truck to market in the next three to five years.
But among competitors, "TuSimple, primarily through interesting partnerships and real on-road testing, is clearly one of the leading startup independent firms," said Michael Ramsey, an analyst and vice president with Gartner's mobility and connected vehicle division.
"Like all the startups, there comes a time where they have to either go really big or find a partner," Ramsey said. "It's too expensive to do it all on your own for a small company."
Richard Bishop, principal of Richard Bishop Consulting and a widely recognized authority on autonomous vehicles, echoed that sentiment..
TuSimple has said it will put a Level 4 truck on the road without a safety driver in 2021 — which would make it the first autonomous trucking company to execute on that goal. As ambitious as that may be, the first driverless run "doesn't mean much" without talking about the scale of the operations, according to Bishop.
"When Freightliner introduces an eCascadia, tens of thousands of those could be on the road soon," he told FreightWaves. "That's not the case with startups." They can deploy a capability, he said, but scaling operations is a completely different challenge.
A friend in the autonomous business
With the Navistar partnership, TuSimple now has a ready market to scale its self-driving system.
"Autonomous technology is entering our industry and will have a profound impact on our customers' businesses," said Persio Lisboa, president and CEO of Navistar, in the press statement.
"Navistar's strategic partnership with TuSimple positions us to be a leader in developing solutions for our customers by leveraging our organizations' collective expertise to integrate our vehicle design and systems integration capabilities with TuSimple's innovative autonomous technology."
Customers will be able to purchase the autonomous trucks through Navistar's sales channels in the United States, Canada and Mexico, the press release stated.