Could trucks overtake taxis in the race to bring driverless trips to everyday life? Much of the coverage of the revolution in autonomous driving in China has congregated around taxi services. But uptake of automated driving is showing signs of traction in the trucking sector, especially in environments away from the complications of contact with the general public, like mines and ports.
The port of Nansha in Guangdong was crowing about the launch of its first fully automated operation at the end of July, for instance, and it joins testing grounds for the new tech at container terminals in places like Yangshan in Shanghai and Zhoushan in Ningbo.
The ultimate goal for the driverless truck firms is to get onto public roads and highways. And although trials for these journeys are more advanced in the United States, companies in China are also jostling for position. Pony.ai, which is also ploughing ahead with robotaxi fleets, has just announced a tie-up with Sany Heavy Truck to deliver robotrucks from as early as later this year, for example. Sany’s production platform for heavy-duty electric vehicles and Pony.ai’s autonomous driving system will come together as a compelling combination of ‘body’ and ‘brain’ says Liang Linhe, Sany Heavy Truck’s chairman.
DeepWay, a driverless start-up backed by Baidu, has just raised more money from investors as well, although it is taking a different path by promising a reimagining of truck design rather than partnering with any of the pre-existing truck makers. Almost inevitably Alibaba is in on the action, announcing in June that it had received approvals to test its new truck without a back-up driver behind the wheel on roads in its home province of Zhejiang. Its rivals JD and Meituan have also invested in Inceptio, a developer of a full-stack autonomous driving system, which has plans to start mass-producing vehicles with automaker partners including Sinotruk.
Also reported in the media last month was that automaker Geely is close to purchasing the Asia-Pacific operations of TuSimple, the first self-driving truck business to go public in the US in April last year.
TuSimple’s Chinese founders envisaged a company that competed in both markets, with co-headquarters in each country (see WiC580). But they ran into political difficulties on concerns in Washington that sensitive information from the American market might find its way to the Chinese government. Board members linked to Sina, one of its major shareholders, agreed to step down earlier this year and TuSimple had committed to segregating its business. But its bosses seem to have decided that a clean break between the two operations is a better way forward, while the sale of its Asia division to Geely would also raise some much-needed capital.
Driverless truck firms are predicting a transitional phase that sees the replacement of two-person crews with a single driver, rather than the immediate prospect of ‘unmanned’ journeys. But proponents are hopeful of a later phase in which fully autonomous vehicles will travel on designated highways, before switching their loads to human drivers at transfer points outside towns and cities.
Others are optimistic that deliveries in urban areas will happen sooner than people think too.
“As the freight is mainly moved at night, when there are fewer people and simpler road conditions, we believe that self-driving freight will be commercialised earlier than robotaxis,” Zhou Guang, the chief executive of DeepRoute.ai, which completed the latest phase of its driverless tests in Shenzhen in July, told Pandaily.
Driverless devotees cite other factors in their favour, including challenges for haulage companies in attracting younger employees, especially for long-distance journeys (the median age of truck drivers in the US is now about 46, say industry groups).
Pressure on wages in China is lower, experts say, but driverless lorries can travel around the clock, which should improve operational margins. Other savings are achievable through programming trips at optimal speeds, the truckers reckon. TuSimple says that its system saved more than 13% in fuel bills in a trial with UPS, the delivery service, for instance.
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