Our company is setting the standard for tech-innovation within the trucking industry, and it’s exciting to be a part of this historic revolution.
$1 Billion Unicorn TuSimple Brings Trucking to the Future
Launched in 2015, TuSimple is a San Diego-based self-driving trucking startup which exploded in funding and already reached unicorn status earlier this year. We discussed with Robert Brown, their Public Affairs and Government Relations chief to learn more about what it’s like to be at the forefront of the autonomous trucking industry.
How does it feel to be the first robo-trucking unicorn??
It feels amazing to be the first robo-trucking unicorn! A lot of hard work and late nights went into reaching this major milestone. As soon as we announced our unicorn status, we had a big celebration in the office — unicorn balloons and all. To have your work validated by reaching this level is a feeling like no other, and we can’t wait to hit the next major milestone of first driverless operation.
What is your company’s inspiration?
Our founder, President, and CTO, Xiaodi Hou, a world-renowned CalTech Ph.D. in computer vision and machine learning, was inspired to tackle the most challenging AI problem out there, autonomous driving. His goal is to transform the $800-billion U.S. trucking industry.
Tell us about the journey to ‘Unicorn’ status and what were the major components that led to such fast growth?
Everyone at TuSimple remains laser-focused in our mission to bring the first self-driving truck to the market. The first step in achieving this mission was to create our propriety autonomous driving technology. Our innovative technology has opened the door for key collaboration projects with truck manufacturers and Tier 1 suppliers. By working with these collaborators, we have been able to create joint production programs for product development. These concepts have been successful and in February 2019, we announced that TuSimple raised $95 million in funding based on a $1 billion valuation. The new capital investment will be used to fund TuSimple’s commercial ramp-up and product development. Today, TuSimple is the only autonomous truck company capable of driving from depot-to-depot without human intervention needed, which requires both complex highway and local street driving. The company currently has 15 contracted customers and we make 3–5 fully-autonomous trips a day in Arizona. This has led to fast growth because investors can see that we are generating revenue while validating our system. Our company is setting the standard for tech-innovation within the trucking industry, and it’s exciting to be a part of this historic revolution.
Tell us about a defining ‘aha!’ moment where your company experienced growth — financially or culturally.
There are two instances that really stick out as defining “aha!” moments. The first moment is when the company received our first check from a paying customer to haul goods while also validating our system. In that instant, we realized that there was an interest in our business model and that the market will adopt our product. We had validation that what we were doing was working and that we were going to be successful. The second moment that comes to mind is when we successfully tested our self-driving trucks in heavy rain with zero disengagements. At the time, the performance exceeded our own expectations at that stage of development, which is always a really exciting realization. The ability to operate in adversarial conditions is key to the commercialization of autonomous driving technology. This was a major milestone for our company.
How do you maintain a competitive advantage over competitors?
Our technical founder Xiaodi Hou’s approach and relentless focus on meeting technical milestones is our competitive advantage. His vision and leadership have provided a roadmap to success and having him lead the technical efforts with his unique areas of expertise allow TuSimple to maintain a competitive advantage within the industry from a product development standpoint.
How would you describe your company culture in a sentence? How do you maintain a strong company culture focused on a common goal with a fast-growing team?
At the heart of TuSimple’s rapid success is a culture focused on innovation, discipline, and focus. We have proven our solution’s concept at every phase which has allowed us to continue to grow at a record pace. TuSimple is on its way to deploying the first driverless operations, and we are excited to meet this great feat in the near future.
What is the biggest challenge your team ever faced and what was learned from it?
The autonomous vehicle/trucking industry as a whole is a constant learning curve and we are faced with challenges every day. At TuSimple, we are eager to tackle them and provide solutions to advance the space. To date, I’d say our biggest challenge was moving into production programs. Working with the industry on production quality trucks and parts that are able to withstand the pressure of long-haul drives and weather conditions, and doing all this within TuSimple’s aggressive timelines and development roadmap has been an exciting challenge. Our team’s ability to meet and exceed our technical milestones has been astounding and we are grateful to have passionate team members across TuSimple’s departments.
What are some misconceptions about your industry?
Only a few years ago, the thought of autonomous vehicles was something of the future. I’d say some of the biggest misconceptions of autonomous vehicles is that they are still light years away. The reality is much closer than we think, especially in the trucking industry versus autonomous vehicles for consumers which will need more time to progress because of complex and varied city driving environments. A common concern is that autonomous vehicles will eliminate jobs, however, that isn’t the case. Today, there is a huge truck driver shortage and the average age of long-haul truck drivers is about 55 — these are jobs the younger generations are not as interested in. Through vehicle autonomy, we are catering to this market gap.
What can you tell us about your company that we couldn’t find out anywhere else?
Our trucks have both safety drivers and test engineers behind the wheels at all times to monitor the system. A little-known fact is that our safety drivers have on average 30 years of experience as a truck driver and they are instrumental in teaching our self-driving trucks to become “super truckers.”
How do you envision the future?
Our primary focus at TuSimple is safety, and to create safer roads for drivers everywhere. TuSimple’s autonomous trucks are safer because they can see longer distances and can react faster than humans. This is a primary focus within the company. Autonomous trucking can also help address the severe driver shortage. We have co-developed a certificate program with Pima Community College in Tucson that will teach truck drivers how to interact with autonomous vehicles. This will create new and different jobs within the industry, such as test drivers to help train the autonomous system, experts to monitor autonomous vehicles from a command center and drivers to operate the vehicle when self-driving isn’t suitable.
What benefits if any, have our Autonomous products brought to your workspace?
Obviously, an autonomous truck company would want to use Autonomous’ desks! The desks promote energy, productivity, and health which creates a healthy workplace. Our employees work at a high level, and the sit-stand desks make it easier for us to be active, which boosts mood and energy levels helping us to stay focused and be more efficient. Autonomous desks have helped us to work smarter, and that is a huge benefit that was introduced to our workplace.