Several autonomous heavy truck companies try to list their shares for financing.
The surging road freight volume and a widening gap in demand for truck drivers, promote the financing boom of self-driving heavy truck industry, and accelerate the R&D of related products and technology landing.
According to incomplete statistics, several autonomous heavy truck solution providers at home and abroad have closed a total of at least 16 funding rounds in the most recent year (August 2020 to August 2021). Examples include PlusAI and Inceptio Technology, two Chinese firms which have raised over USD800 million in all in their recent several funding rounds.
In the meanwhile, some solution providers which suffered sustained losses, and high input and low output, have started resorting to IPO for raising more funds. On April 15, 2021, TuSimple went public on Nasdaq, becoming the world’s first listed company in autonomous driving field. And then a few other autonomous heavy truck solution providers announced listing in the US as special purpose acquisition companies (SPAC).
The LiDAR + camera + radar fusion solutions have become mainstream.
Most providers adopt the LiDAR + camera + radar fusion solutions combined with HD map and high-precision positioning, which enable their heavy trucks to drive themselves. Some solution providers like Embark use hybrid LiDAR solutions, that is, the combination of solid-state and mechanical LiDARs enables omnidirectional depth perception of the surroundings of a vehicle.
The time that mainstream solution providers inside and outside China are expected to launch the technology is relatively consistent. In the case of loose policies, autonomous heavy trucks will come into service on highways between 2023 and 2024.
Cooperation modes of autonomous heavy truck industry
Quite a few heavy truck OEMs and logistics companies race to land on highway scenarios in addition to capital betting on autonomous heavy trucks.
The highway transportation scenario-oriented autonomous heavy truck ecosystem accommodates autonomous heavy truck solution providers, heavy truck manufacturers and logistics transport service providers, which work together to propel commercialization of autonomous heavy trucks.
As concerns research and development, solution providers and heavy truck manufacturers jointly develop L4 autonomous heavy trucks based on OEM or AM vehicle models. With regard to commercial operation, solution providers partner with logistics transport service providers on commercial operation and actual freight transport test of autonomous heavy trucks.
In terms of partnerships, autonomous heavy truck solution providers often team up with OEMs, co-developing L4 autonomous heavy trucks based on flagship models in OEM or AM market. Foreign autonomous heavy truck companies develop autonomous driving often under the leadership of their group companies, which means sub-brands of these group companies build technological cooperation with solution providers.
For example, Traton under Volkswagen formed a global partnership with TuSimple to jointly develop L4 autonomous driving technology and apply to Volkswagen’s brands like SCANIA and MAN.
Development trends of autonomous heavy trucks
To achieve the goal of “emissions peak in 2030, carbon neutrality in 2060”, the power source of autonomous heavy trucks will shift from diesel to low or zero carbon energy like natural gas and hydrogen.
Platooning technology is being reviewed. In January 2019, Daimler Trucks held a contrary opinion on platooning. After thousands of miles of testing, Daimler has come to the conclusion that truck platooning delivers low economic benefits and has natural defects such as needing a driver, so it will end development of the technology and turn to L4 autonomous heavy trucks. Also, what impacts the actual use of platooning will put on the normal traffic has yet to be verified in real road tests.
In the short run, there will be certain barriers to large-scale commercial use of autonomous heavy trucks in China’s business environment.
The development goal of L4 autonomous heavy trucks is to remove driver and let vehicles complete logistics transport and delivery without needing a human driver to monitor. The most direct customers are logistics companies which operate their own fleets, such as JD, SF Express, YTO Express, STO Express, ZTO Express and YunDa Express. Such companies have much expectation of autonomous heavy trucks lowering their total cost of ownership (TCO), which will make autonomous heavy trucks a big market.
In China, truck drivers are generally self-employed and only 17% of them have their vehicles employed by companies or owned by fleets; 83% drive their own vehicles, according to the Survey Report on Employment of Truck Drivers in 2021 released by China Federation of Logistics & Purchasing (CFLP). The blossom of autonomous heavy trucks in China is still a long way off.