Navistar is shaving up to five years off the industry timeline for autonomous semis, partnering with self-driving technology leader TuSimple to sell International-branded driverless trucks in 2024, the companies said Wednesday.
Navistar International Corp. (NYSE:NAV) took an undisclosed minority interest in startup TuSimple, and could increase its stake over time.
"Autonomous technology will have a profound impact on our customers' business," said recently named Navistar President and CEO Persio Lisboa. "This marks a significant milestone in our development journey with TuSimple. And we look forward to furthering our relationship in the months to come."
Navistar vaulted Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA), Volvo Group and PACCAR Inc.'s Kenworth Truck Co., which expect SAE Level 4 autonomous trucks late this decade. Level 4 autonomy means no human interaction is required.
"We're not talking about partnering on demonstrations. We're talking about Navistar and TuSimple bringing a product to market that anyone can walk into a dealer or call their national account representative and say, ‘I'd like to order [autonomous] trucks." Chris Gutierrez, Navistar chief engineer for Advanced Driver Assistance Systems, told FreightWaves.
After two years working with TuSimple's current technology, Navistar is developing a diesel-powered, no-frills autonomous semi that will look like a sleeper cab. But autonomous hardware instead of creature comforts will fill the area behind the cab.
"I think this move really helps Navistar create a differentiated product and gives TuSimple the thing it truly needed — a platform on which to put its technology," said Mike Ramsey, vice president and analyst for Automotive and Smart Mobility at Gartner Inc.
"It's also a foray into selling a product instead of a service, which has to be the end goal for these trucks."
Total cost of ownership rules
Total cost of ownership will dictate enthusiasm for driverless trucks. Because of low fuel costs, the driver accounts for 48% of the operating cost of a truck, Gutierrez said.
"Our goal is to be able to provide a product that has the opportunity to remove the driver and to leverage that benefit," he said. "The nice part about this is there's not going to be a driver wanting to customize the vehicle. It will perform a task. And that is its absolute function."
Navistar will limit options. One wheelbase. One cab type. One powertrain.
"Those are all things that are necessary to bring a product to market quickly because [they] impact how the vehicle behaves and how it performs," Gutierrez said.
Other than fill-ups or breakdowns, an autonomous truck doesn't need to stop in normal operation. Navistar is looking at a 200- to 240-gallon fuel tank. Assuming 8 mpg, it could travel more than 1,900 miles.
Part of Navistar 4.0
Aggressive plans for autonomous trucking jibes with Navistar's Vision 2025, which includes a 25% target market share of heavy- and medium-trucks and buses. Its share was 18.8% in 2019.
As part of Navistar 4.0, the Lisle, Illinois, company targets 12% earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) by 2024. It recently broke ground on a new plant in San Antonio, Texas. The plant is designed for lean manufacturing.
Navistar could be part of German-based TRATON Group before 2024. On Jan. 30, the holding company of Volkswagen AG's truck brands offered $2.9 billion for the 83% of Navistar it does not already own. It paid $256 million for 16.6% of Navistar in September 2016. The two companies work together on purchasing and powertrain projects.
"This product falls under the umbrella" of Vision 2025 and Navistar 4.0," Gutierrez said.
DTNA is testing Level 4 trucks in Virginia, near Torc Robotics, which it purchased in 2019. It showed its first autonomous prototype in 2015. But Daimler executives demur when pressed on a production date.
Kenworth quietly showed a Level 4 prototype at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January. It offered few details on timing or other plans.
Volvo Group possibly has the most autonomous activity around the world.Its Vera cabless autonomous vehicle is in port testing in Sweden. It has driverless mining trucks in Norway and robotic agricultural vehicles in Brazil. Its former U.D. Trucks subsidiary in Japan demonstrated autonomous maneuvers on a sugar plantation in Hokkaido Province in 2019.
Does No. 1 matter?
"Being first doesn't mean much if it doesn't work well," Gartner's Ramsey told FreightWaves. "I remember that the Fisker Karma came out before the Model S from Tesla. But if it is successful and works well, then it can be a real differentiator in the long term."
Added IHS Markit trucking analyst Antti Lindstrom: "Navistar has been a little less in the headlines regarding the advances on the autonomy issues. But as we all know, this is a marathon, not a sprint. Having been in the front rows early on does not necessarily mean finishing the race first."